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Volume 29, Number 1, Fall 2010

The Trade of Queens

By Charles Stross

Tor, 2010
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

With this novel, Stross concludes his Family Trade series. The fifth volume ended with a double cliffhanger: the heroine’s potential love interest, DEA agent Mike Fleming, was the target of a bomb planted in his car, and a faction with the Clan set off atomic bombs in Washington, D.C., in retaliation against actions of the American government. This novel shows the aftermath of the two events.

Stross has blogged about this project’s difficulties: It was originally meant to be a series of fewer and slightly longer novels; when publishing economics made the length prohibitive, splitting them up forced him to make space for necessary recapitulation by expanding each of the pieces. The plot momentum, especially in the third volume, sometimes suffered as a result: sections that were perfectly readable as part of a larger book became a bit of a slog when presented as freestanding books, with a lot of grimness and not much excitement. Reading the series as a whole puts them into better perspective.

The first two volumes were largely reviewed as fantasy, and apparently were deliberately marketed as fantasy, partly for contractual reasons. But in fact, Stross was writing hard science fiction...the science in question being development economics and historical sociology. The interworld travel is not really what the story is about: it’s a vehicle for a story about economics, as H. G. Wells’s original time machine was a vehicle for a story about human evolutionary adaptation to industrial conditions. But even so, in the later volumes, Stross approaches interworld travel in a very hard sf manner, too. Not only is it genetically linked (the basis for the peculiar breeding rules of the Clan), but the genes are coding not for magic or even for “psionics” but for the ability to make use of a physical phenomenon. And as E. E. Smith told us, what science can create (or analyze), science can duplicate. That sets up the conclusion of this novel ...which might have been called “The Empire Strikes Back” if that title weren’t already taken.

I’ve been saying “conclude” in this review. That word choice is deliberate. Lately many novels, especially long novels, have ended with rather rushed final chapters, which give the impression that the author has suddenly grasped that the story is too long and tied everything off in a quick epilogue. Stross doesn’t fall into that trap. But I can’t really feel that the story has ended, either. It’s not just that there’s room for a sequel, though there clearly is; it’s that he’s left his fictional world in ruins, to the point where I can’t really feel that the fate of his characters has been emotionally resolved. Unless, of course, his point is exactly that his smart, fiercely independent heroine and her Clan were headed for a train wreck from the beginning. The Trade of Queens was one of the most impressive train wrecks I’ve seen in fiction, and if you’re looking for a truly appalling display of the might and wrath of the greatest imperial power in human history, this is your book. But it ends with only the faintest hints of hope. I can’t help wishing to see another series that gives them room to grow a bit.

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