The Hidden Family, while a perfectly satisfying sequel to The Family Trade in that it continues the story pretty seamlessly, is also a prime example of a common danger of sequel writing and a problem endemic to series fiction in general. Stross throws us right back into the story without much recap, which indicates that this will likely be one of those trilogies best read all in one go. Thus it is that I found this book a little harder to get into than I anticipated, particularly given the complexity of the worlds Stross has created here, and the intricate political machinations that befall the protagonist, spunky Miriam Beckstein. While I don't expect writers to open up every sequel with a banal "What Has Gone Before" prologue, it's still appreciated when they give readers a chapter or two to get back into the groove, or, better yet, write sequels that could function as stand-alone novels in their own right. (Note: one of my regular readers tipped me off to the fact that the two novels were originally intended to be one, and were split up at the request of the publisher. Which still means that the second book has a problem, only that it isn't Charlie's fault.)
But once the initial fog lifted ("Who is that person again...? Oh yeah..."), I found myself slipping right back in with delight. I have no idea if economic fantasy is ever likely to become a viable sub-genre — not much employment for chicks in chainmail, after all — but the fact that Stross has not only concocted such an odd little artifact but made it work is a pretty good indicator that perhaps fantasy isn't all out of ideas just yet. Here's a trilogy that doesn't really draw upon any one conventional precursor — there are traces of Wolfe and Zelazny, a pinch of Vance — and yet manages to be, on its own terms, every bit as accessible as anything offered up by the genre's top-selling writers. Without sacrificing its own originality. I'm willing to forgive a lot for that.
When we left Miriam in book one, her appearance had shaken the foundations of an entire mercantile family in an alternate America still trapped in a quasi-medieval state of development. Soon she found herself the target of unknown assassins. In The Hidden Family she begins to get an inkling of who those assassins might be. A branch of the Clan long thought lost has in fact opened up a pathway to yet another alternate Earth. Miriam makes her way over, using a locket taken from one of the would-be assassins, and discovers a steampunky version of America about a century or so behind ours, in a world where the global political landscape has had a much different history as well. For instance, this new America, which Miriam calls New Britain, has a king, but he can be impeached. Among other oddities.
Doing her best to conceal herself from her potential killers, while maintaining contact with both her adoptive mother Iris on our Earth, and Clan leader Duke Angbard, Miriam goes about establishing a business empire in New Britain. With the aid of a pawnbroker (a delightful character, really) with dodgy political ties, she brings over patents from our Earth for inventions that the New British haven't thought of yet, like a standard disc brake assembly for their steam-powered automobiles. Miriam can only hope she stays one step ahead of the killers from the hidden family, as well as the New British authorities who suspect her dealings with the pawnbroker, in order to solidify a power base of her own. But with the possibility of spies and traitors among the few people she thinks she can trust, it isn't going to be easy.
As in the previous volume, Stross displays ample wit in virtually all storytelling departments; in his character development, his plot complications, and even his worldcraft. (It's not surprising that he's given as much thought to the intricate and strange political history of New Britain as he has its quaint social morés and sartorial customs.) And yet when it comes time for the story to turn dark and dangerous, he's up to the task. I found Miriam and her friends and family in the Clan just as appealing as before, though one character's surprising "true identity" reveal is perhaps not as earth-shattering as it might have been. And while I defended the rather abrupt ending of The Family Trade, I am pleased that Stross chose to give this book's finale a bit more closure.
With Charles Stross demonstrating an equally deft hand whether he's tackling far-out post-Singularitarian SF or offbeat satirical fantasy, the only questions are what he will do for an encore, and will he run out of steam too soon? I'll keep hoping for an emphatic "no" to the latter of those, and "who knows?" for the former.