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Book cover art by Paul Youll.
Review © 2004 by Thomas M. Wagner.

It's official — Charles Stross can do anything. And what he likes to do best is take hoary old chestnuts — say, the space opera or the alternate-Earth fantasy — and roast them over an open fire until the heat has cooked them into something deliciously new and strange. The Family Trade begins with a concept so cheesy you wouldn't expect to see it this side of a Hilary Duff movie: a young woman finds a magic locket that transports her to another world vaguely like ours. From there, any similarity to traditional fairy tales living or dead is purely coincidental.

In fact, though marketed as his first foray into fantasy, The Family Trade reads more like a slipstream SF thriller, and its themes — the relationship between organized crime and politics — are uncommon to the fantasy genre, to say the least. The story begins when journalist Miriam Beckstein discovers that the parent company of the IT trade journal she works for is involved in a vast money-laundering operation; but the subsequent job loss and intimidation she endures from them is nothing compared to what's coming at her from round the corner. Miriam has long known she was an adopted child, her birth mother a hapless murder victim, a Jane Doe found in the snow. But when her adoptive mother gives her a box of old personal information, the truth about Miriam's life finally comes to light.

A locket found amongst these personal effects allows Miriam to blip between this world, and an alternate Earth in which the land we call America is ruled by a king but whose economy is tightly controlled by a clan of Medici-like mercantile families. Miriam belongs to one of these families; in fact, she is the putative heir (her name on the other side is Helge Lofstrom) and her sudden arrival after having been thought lost as an infant for 32 years has upset the delicate power balance within the Clan.

Stross's methodical unraveling of his story provides ample showcase for why he's being so eagerly hyped as one of today's brilliant talents. It's never less than completely engrossing, with nifty surprises at all the right moments. Miriam treats her initial discovery of this alternate world with a journalist's thoroughness; once she realizes that transport is two-way, she loads up cameras and all sorts of gear and plans to make a proper investigation of the place. But events soon overtake her. Once the Clan has detected that she is going back and forth, they send a team of armed men over to our side to abduct her in the night.

Miriam soons finds herself ensconsed among the rest of the Lofstrom family, whose Boss, the merchant-prince Duke Angbard, is practically a capo right out of a mob movie. She gets a quick crash course in how things are done amongst the merchant princes. The Clan has enriched itself through the work of its few hundred members who are able to transport between their world and ours; it's a genetic trait, and the Clan has strict rules about intermarriage ensuring that bloodlines don't get diluted. Like the Mob in its quintessence, they earn massive money on our side smuggling drugs, which they are able to do so effectively because the DEA tend not to look for portals to other worlds. Certain Clan buildings have "doppelgängers," matching buildings on our side that serve as safe houses and such. With the money they earn, the Clan then buys certain high-tech items (though the scope of what they can transport is limited by size) that aren't produced back home, and trades them there. The Clan has become so rich and powerful that the royalty actually want to marry into it. But of course, power corrupts and all that, and Miriam's mother was murdered during a civil war within the Clan.

Miriam quickly sees how the Clan, while powerful, is stagnant at its core. No one within the Clan really cares how their economy works or how they are so rich; it's all about the trappings of wealth, the titles and the power. It's perfectly superficial; if you can't show it, you ain't got it. There has been no effort to modernize their own society; doing so would threaten the power base. Earl Roland, who becomes Miriam's ally and lover (and who actually got most of his education on our side, at Harvard), once tried and was duly humiliated. But there could be a way to convince the families that it would be in their economic interests to modernize, and Miriam — a terrific, grab-the-problem-by-the-horns sort of heroine — aims to find it. But she cannot underestimate the daunting task of advancing a whole world from feudalism into capitalism (if only in its rudimentary 19th century form) in a few scant years, even if there weren't ruthless merchant princes to deal with.

You don't mess with the mob, especially when your very existence as a long-lost heir suddenly emerged from the woodwork presents a direct threat to some very powerful people who, up until you popped up, had no reason to doubt their futures were secure. Things begin to get complicated when Miriam finds herself having to dodge assassins. But whose are they?

Neddless to say, you're dealing with an unusual fantasy novel when your protagonist resorts to economics instead of magic or swordplay to vanquish her foes. But The Family Trade is no less exciting or action-packed for it, and it's a good deal better than most. This is the thinking-person's adventure so many SF and fantasy fans say they wish for. Pacing is pitch-perfect and suspense is taut. It's impossible not to admire Miriam; it would have been all too easy to make her a little too clever and resourceful for her own good, but Stross knows how to keep her (and by extension us) on her toes through the occasional misstep. (And her background as a journalist helps her know how to deal with sticky situations.) Still, Miriam has a good idea what her advantages and disadvantages are against these arrogant and thuggish but (in their way) limited foes, and she quickly realizes it isn't about beating them at their own game. It's about rewriting the rules so the game works for her.

I'm going to mention this because it will no doubt pop up as a negative data point in online forums and newsgroups. The ending is abrupt — very abrupt — and deliberately leaves a number of key issues unresolved and, for that matter, the whole story in a cliffhanger. But, knowing that we're looking at a series here, it's clear Stross knows what he's about. It would be something that sucks only if the story up to that point weren't as gripping as it is. As it stands, the ending is likely to evoke the screams usually associated with the "To be continued" title at the end of television shows when something intense is about to happen. (The Sopranos is one undeniable influence here, and another pop-media reference makes for the book's funniest statirical bullseye: Angbard's idea of after-dinner entertainment is to wheel a big-screen TV into the room and treat his guests to Dallas.) But I'd argue these are good screams, the kind that come not because the story is lame but because you're so into it, it can't possibly end yet. It means — dammit — that Charles Stross has hooked you and he knows exactly how to get you to tune in to the next episode. It may be a little cold-blooded, but you can't deny it works. Bastard. Consider this one TiVo'd.

Followed by The Hidden Family.