Family Trade by Charles Stross

June 7, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Note: Family Trade is actually part one of a two book series (i.e. it was really one big novel but the publisher split it into two). This review is for both. Not that there aren’t any spoilers for either, but I just want to make clear if you get one you will have to get the other to actually finish the story. There is another sequel, Clan Corporate, and my impression (haven’t read it) is that this is part one of a similar duology.

Stross has acquired a reputation as a white-hot SF futurist author. I can see why, though personally he has yet to really impress me. To me he’s sort of like a poor man’s Neal Stephenson in that he brings a lot of cool ideas to the table, but unlike Stephenson doesn’t make you laugh out loud and fails to really have any meaningful character work. On the plus side, he actually writes decent endings to his books and hasn’t entered the business of disguising history textbooks as historical fiction. The Family Trade series is billed as his entry into fantasy, but don’t be fooled. This may have a magic item, but otherwise there’s no magic, and in any case the “outlook” of the story is a forward-looking, future seen as superior, science fictional view. There are also some facile comparisons to Zelazny, but while I admit Stross clearly has read the Amber books, ultimately this is nothing like Amber. No, here Stross is evoking a variation of the scientist-as-hero theme from the classic Asimov/Clarke days that is so rarely seen now, although in fact it is economics, not hard science, in this case. Many sections are reminiscent of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court, showing the modern and progressive protagonist running circles around those who are comparitively primitives.

In between all this we have an action story involving guns, mines, swords, and a conspiracy. To Stross’ credit, the fact his protagonist is (like the author) an IT industry journalist and not a cigar chomping action hero only occasionally leads to some incredulous moments. No, the action mostly works. Unfortunately, in the second book Stross can’t keep all the balls in the air at once and the plot comes undone. The climax is both predictable and unsatisfying. The first book (i.e. the first half of the story) is pretty strong but with the plot coming apart, the characters are too two-dimensional for there to be anything compelling. As usual Stross does fun things with his concept, but a really satisfying story still eludes him. Recommended for those who like science fiction, economics, and don’t mind the fact what’s wrapped around it all is a little too fluffy.

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