London: Pan Macmillan, 2016
I first came across the work of Charles Stross through his Merchant Princes series, which postulated a parallel earth (and, subsequently, a number of different earths) and a small group of people who could travel between them by some sort of magic-like technology. The parallel earth is medieval in technology and society and its leaders want rapid economic development, largely so as to reinforce their own power. Consequently, they organize a large-scale organized trade in illegal drugs, which eventually brings about their downfall in a hail of nuclear bombs. All of this is revealed at the beginning of the current book so do not qualify as spoilers. It is the political and, particularly, the economic elements of the story that drew praise and support from Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman.
After the six episodes of the Merchant Princes, Stross moved on to other ideas. There were some one off space adventures, as I recall, which were OK and then the development of his Laundry series. This series combined Lovecraftian horror with British satire. Although it has been extremely popular, I never really took to it and, indeed, stopped buying the books some years ago. As a result, I hadn’t read any Stross for a number of years. So, it was a bit of a surprise to see Empire Games prominently displayed in Taipei’s Son Min bookshop and representing itself as a return to the Merchant Princes storyline and, also, a delight.
Considering the ending of the previous series and bearing in mind the author’s penchant for writing multi-novel storylines (unless it is the preference of the publisher or his agent), it is not surprising that this first novel does quite a lot to set up the series for development over the next few years. The book begins with an explanation of the world as we now know it, which means it would be possible to start the series without having read the previous one, although to do so would be a willful denial of pleasure. There are four main timelines presented. One of these is the nuked Gruinmarkt, which is unlikely to play a large part of the narrative for the foreseeable future. There is our own timeline, which of course has the history of the previous interactions with the Clan of world-walkers. The third timeline is the one discovered by Miriam, the principal protagonist of the first series but less significant so far here. That world sees confrontation between the British and French empires, which dominate the world. This is the place where the remnants of the Clan have taken refuge and from which Miriam is plotting a series of urgent technological great leaps forward to protect themselves from the inevitable discovery by the America of our world. Alas, we still have President Rumsfeld in charge and his USA contains all the dangerous poison of racism and intolerance that is evident under the real-life incumbent. A secret war between the two worlds has, in effect, been declared but the Americans are hampered by lack of world-walking ability. This is where our new principal protagonist, Rita, enters the scene. It is discovered by the Homeland Security spooks that Rita, daughter of a Miriam she has never known, can be made into their own stars and stripes world-walker. Hence, the action unfurls from these initial premises.
This is a great return to form, in my opinion. The character of Rita is engaging enough and the action scenes taut and gripping. The dialogue is as good as might be found in any fantasy or science fiction genre (the book could be placed in either of these sections in bookshops that distinguish books in this way). Above all, there is a sense of inherent doom in the fourth timeline, which is currently gripped by an ice age, where the mysterious forerunners have left behind powerful technologies, perhaps because of some terrible disaster.
Stross writes superior fiction because of his willingness to engage in the political implications of the worlds about which he writes. His revolutions are believable and his portrayal of the masses, who are given sufficient walk-on parts to make sure the reader is aware of their presence. The suspension of disbelief is so much easier to swallow as a result.
This is a very readable and enjoyable book and I look forward to reading the forthcoming episodes.