The Family Trade
By Charles Stross
Tor Books, 2004
The Family Trade is an alternate history / parallel world science fiction novel, and the first of the popular The Merchant Princes series.
Business journalist Miriam Beckstein discovers something big -- major companies being used to launder drug money. Unfortunately, the owners of her company are also in on the scheme, and she suddenly finds herself fired. Coincidentally, the next day she also discovers that she bears a genetic gift that allows her to travel to an alternate universe, one in which technology stalled approximately 500 years ago.
It turns out that being able to travel worlds moves her directly into the elite ruling class, a world full of court intrigue, political maneuvering, and frequent assassination attempts. She finds herself a prisoner, a valuable political ally, and a assassination target all in short order, with no end in sight. The only good news is that her new compatriots don't really get the potential of the last 500 years worth of technology...
And really, that's about it. This was originally the first half of the first book, but the publisher felt that it was too long (probably true), and as a consequence this novel has a rather stagnant overall plot -- although there are certainly enough Exciting Events going on in the short term. I assume the second book will introduce a more compelling conclusion.
Overall, this novel has a very traditional fantasy theme -- an intelligent protagonist finding a way into a fantasy universe and succeeding through intelligence and grit. Of course, this in not a fantasy universe, which removes some of the interesting elements that most books of this sort have. In addition, the writing style is not very engaging, and Stross has fallen into the trap of trying to make his characters seem more real by giving lots of mundane details, without actually making them very interesting. On the plus side, it looks like that given enough pages, Stross fully intends to take the one hook of this series -- travel between a parallel universe -- and develop it in great and fulsome detail. He has clearly spent a lot of time setting up a wide range of characters and started laying out their many and complicated motivations, and while I don't feel any particular empathy for the main characters, the secondary characters are potentially interesting and certainly aren't ignored or marginalized.
I did not find the first installment of this series compelling enough that I plan on reading the second. However, I also recognize that this in unfair; I have basically read only half of what the author originally intended to be the the first book, and I do expect the second installment to continue to build and become more engaging. If I were more interested in epic tales of medieval intrigue, this would indeed be an entertaining series.
The next book in the series is The Hidden Family, although the first two books are also available in one volume under the title The Bloodline Feud.