The Family Trade by Charles Stross

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Rating 7.5/10
A new take on the fantasy and alternative history genres.

Miriam Beckstein, a successful reporter for a hi-tech magazine in Boston, finds iron-clad evidence of a money-laundering scheme. But when she takes it to her editor, she's fired on the spot and gets a death threat from the criminals she has uncovered.

Before the day is over, she's received a locket left by the mother she never knew - the mother who was murdered when she was an infant. Within is a knot work pattern, which has a hypnotic effect on her. Before she knows it, she's transported herself to a parallel Earth, a world where knights on horseback chase their prey with automatic weapons, and where world-skipping assassins lurk just on the other side of reality - a world where her true family runs things.

Came across both this and its sequel, `The Hidden Family' whilst browsing the new books shelf in the local library. Despite the somewhat romantic artwork on the front cover and avoiding the usual unctuous and overly obsequious periodical praise on the backs this seemed intriguing. Rather than an alternative history, it sought to take fantasy, mesh it with time travel and then add in some alternative realities. Original and entertaining at first glance and so it proved.

Stross has produced a novel that offers a wealth of plot, characterization and action which more than compensates for the writing style that is, at times, rushed. The lead character, Miriam Beckstein, a.k.a Countess Helge Thorold Hjorth, is prone to trusting all and sundry and seems incapable of not speaking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to anyone who asks. Still, this minor character flaw, coupled with her personality that demands all come under her authority, doesn't detract from a plot that is fascinating.

The story opens with Miriam's impromptu sacking from her journalist career for delving into a topic that implicates too many people in money laundering. Her visit to her adopted mother, Iris, reveals a package with a Celtic knot medallion which is able to transport her to an alternative America that has only reached a technological state of the later medieval period. A few investigative sorties result in her capture by her extended family as she learns that she is descended from her mother, Patricia and father Alfred, both world-travelling members of the Clan. Her appearance on the scene provokes all kinds of furore as she takes her inheritance and is sent by her uncle, Angbard, to meet with the King and establish herself at Court.

Subsequent assassination attempts, a passionate love affair with Roland, intrigues with Olga and Brilliana, and her attempts to get away from the business affairs that fund her extremely rich family lead Miriam to find a third world where America is under the influence of a Victorian-eqsue English rule. Her business acumen allows her to set up a business where her patents bring her wealth in the third world whilst she is able to shift Old Masters back to her world to make vast profit whilst she is trying to discover who is trying to assassinate her.

So, Charles Stross has created an opening novel that offers a new take on the fantasy and alternative history genres. The action is measured, the plot crisp. The characterization needs work and this will improve as the series develops but this opener offers sufficient interest to ensure that the second novel will be read.

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