The Bloodline Feud, by Charles Stross

Second paragraph of third chapter:

"You're a big girl," she told the scalding hot waterfall as it gushed into the tub. "Big girls don't get bent out of shape by little things," she told herself. Like losing her job. "Big girls deal with divorces. Big girls deal with getting pregnant while they're at school, putting the baby up for adoption, finishing med school, and retraining for another career when they don't like the shitty options they get dealt. Big girls cope with marrying their boyfriends, then finding he's been sleeping with their best friends. Big girls make CEOs shit themselves when they come calling with a list of questions. They don't go crazy and think they're wandering around a rainy forest being shot at by armored knights with assault rifles." She sniffed, on the edge of tears.

This is a compilation and revision of the first two books in Stross's Merchant Princes series (originally intended to be one book rather than two). When I read the first, The Family Trade, in 2005, I wrote:

I had been looking forward to reading this for some time. Reviews that I had skimmed (and indeed hints dropped by the author) led me to understand that it borrows the feudal and feuding families who can walk between the worlds of Roger Zelazny's Amber series, a firm favourite of mine from an early age. But my anticipation was mixed with a little trepidation: even Zelazny was unable to really pull it off in the end – while the Amber books contain some of his most lyrical prose, the plot has holes you can drive an army of dark, clawed, fanged, furry man-like creatures through, and his own interest and energy had very obviously faded by the middle of the second series. And as for the Betancourt prequels – critical reaction has been pretty unanimous, so I don't think I'll bother.

Well, I think Charlie has pulled it off. He's taken Zelazny's idea and wondered what people with that ability would actually do with it in today's world; applied an economic model to it, if you like. Amber was always supposedly a great trading nexus (Corwin had written its anthem, the Ballad of the Water Crossers), but the evidence of this was pretty minimal – rather than wealth, its children seemed to be more attracted to power, and went off to find kingdoms and wars of their own. In the Stross version, there is a convincing business model using the fact that those with the gift can shift between our world and one where the Vikings settled North America and Europe never developed (and, we suspect, at least one other such parallel universe). Also in the Stross version, we have a plot that makes sense and is compelling reading; and some very interesting and complex characters. The Family Trade doesn't have the vivid imagery of some of his other work, but I sat up much later than I should have last night to finish it, and now can't wait for the sequel, The Hidden Family.

A few weeks later, I wrote of the second part, The Hidden Family:

I once again sat up far too late reading this, the sequel to The Family Trade. And enjoyed it too. Our heroine from the first book has a business plan, an economic model, three parallel universes to trade between, and a bunch of enemies out to kill her. Some vivid scene-setting, including of the weather; one nice little touch which reminded me of my debate with Ken MacLeod back in August:

I don't know much about English history, but it's got this civil war in the sixteen forties, goes on and on about some dude called the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. I looked him up in Encarta and yes, he's there, too. I didn't know the English had a civil war, and it gets better: they had a revolution in 1688, too! Did you know that? I sure didn't, and it's not in Encarta — but I didn't trust it, so I checked Britannica and it's kosher. Okay, so England has a lot of history, and it's all in the wrong order.

As the climax loomed and the number of pages left to read dwindled rapidly, I began to wonder if the book would end on a genuine cliff-hanger to encourage us to look out for The Clan Corporate. But in fact enough was resolved – if in a bit of a rush – for the story to come to a satisfactory halt for now.

Charlie does like his feisty women heroes! And does them well.

Sixteen years on, I had forgotten enough of the plot to enjoy it all over again, and also to note that some of the rough edges have been filed off. Perhaps I know the northeast of the US a bit better now than I did, after various visits to my brother in Boston and my former employers in New York, and also a bit more historical background reading, so it all cohered a bit better in my mind. I still love Zelazny and Amber, but I also really like the economic/business mindset that Stross's heroine brings to a similar situation, and the desperate attempts of surveillance states in each of the parallel worlds to keep track of people who can move between them. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2017. Next on that pile is The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

book cover
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