The Family Trade: Book One of the Merchant Princes
by Charles Stross
Tor, 2004, ISBN 0-765-30929-7
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
Miriam Beckstein, a reporter for a hi-tech industry magazine based in Boston, starts off the work day happy, successful, and on the verge of breaking the biggest story of her career. She ends the day unemployed, her career and her reputation threatened, and contemplating the few items left to her from the birth mother murdered when she was a toddler. One of those items is a locket that, when studied too closely, bumps her into an alternate worldthe world her unremembered parents came from. In that world, Miriam is the heir of one of the wealthier branches of a clan that has the ability to hope between that timeline and our own. Her home timeline is technologically and politically somewhat behind ours, at about the 15th or 16th century level, and her kin have used their ability to become merchant princes, jumped-up "new" nobility somewhat resented by the older noble families but highly valued by the king because of their ability to finance him. It's a dangerous world, with conflicts with neighboring kingdoms, conflicts with other nobility, and conflicts verging on outright warfare among the different families and lineages of Miriam's own clan.
It's not a comfortable life, but it is a privileged one if you can learn the rules quickly enough, and Miriam quickly finds she's better-suited to the challenge and the danger of it than she might have expected. She's also met a guyher cousin Rolandwhom she's very interested in, and made some friends, including another cousin, Olga.
It is a bit of a complication that the head of their family intends Roland to marry Olga, and Miriam to find someone suitable to marry who'll bring her powerful allies within the clan. It's more of a complication that a good bit of the clan's wealth comes from drug smuggling in our world, and Miriam finds this deeply morally objectionable.
The really big complication, though, is that Miriam and Roland want to completely reorganize the clan's business model and political structure.
And then there's the whole never-adequately-answered question of who, exactly, murdered Miriam's parents, and why.
This is a really well-done, enjoyable, world-hopping adventure, with the complications thought out and explored in interesting ways. My only real complaint is that the book stops abruptly in mid-storyTor apparently took one long book and chopped it in half. For the rest of the story, we have to wait for The Hidden Family.