Empire Games by Charles Stross

Empire Games
Charles Stross
Tor, 316 pages
Review: Noel Chidwick

Empire Games continues The Merchant Princes series, which we left in 2010 with The Trade of Queens.

The Merchant Princes is an alternative Earth saga, featuring the Clan, who world-walk between their own timeline still stuck in the Middle Ages and ‘our’ timeline. They trade between the two lines to make their fortune, where trade is, as Stross describes it, “paperwork-free shipping.” Drugs trafficking is their currency: the obvious choice when you can flick from one world to another in the blink of an eye. The upshot is knights with machine guns.

If you haven’t read the Merchant Princes books, off you pop. They’re a riveting read and you’ll be turning pages so fast you’ll risk finger blisters.

The bulk of Empire Games is set in 2020, with a President Rumsfeld in the big chair. We follow in the footsteps of Rita, who is the daughter of Miriam, the protagonist of the original series. Rita is adopted, and initially is unaware of the identity of her “DNA Donors”, just as her mother was before her at the start of the original series.

We’re quickly drawn into a shadowy world where the USA is developing a defence program to protect itself, as it sees, from the terrorism of the Clan, using technology and not-so-nice means to create ways to world-hop with big machinery and weapons of war.

Meanwhile, the Clan, after having to move to a third timeline are also building up their power in a once vaguely Victorian timeline. Miriam seems to have a lot of say, and this timeline quickly develops technologies to help better the lives of the Clan and its host world, and to protect itself against the looming US threat.

Rita is the pivot in this tale, as she is trained and persuaded to help in the US’s desire for intelligence on the whereabouts of the Clan, and ways to destroy it.

The section of Rita’s training is the one area where Stross strays to cliché a tad, and you can almost hear the pulsing music-backed montage in the film version, but in this case it serves as a vehicle for Rita to begin to question herself and ask what the heck is really going on.

Stross is a master of world weaving and narrative time hopping. To reach 2020 we leapfrog from the present day, skipping across timelines as we go. As we jump around we neatly revisit the backstory of the previous series, popping in useful reminders as we go. This viewpoint movement helps build the tension and at the same time helps grow that sense of unease. I read this book on a short visit to Gothenburg; finding myself in a country with a language I had no handle on (French or Spanish yes, Swedish—not a chance), probably enhanced that feeling of discombobulation.

Stross is good at writing strong female characters, especially in his recent books, and Empire Games is no different. Rita’s passage from ignorance to awareness, and eventually to a real sense of what’s she getting into is handled believably. Miriam meanwhile, in her timeline is strong-willed and determined, but with a sense of what is right. Her self-doubt, however, acts as a check and balance for her actions. Rita’s uncle plays a large role in the backroom of the story; an immigrant to the US from a pre-wall East Germany.

From time to time Stross takes a wander off the path of the furiously building story to enjoy his many worlds and to give us tantalising glimpses of ideas he’s brewing. There’s a world with a hole in it that really does need looking into; no doubt the rest of the series will give Stross the space to explore that and other worlds he’s hinted at.

Watch those blistering fingers as you turn the pages. Empire Games is fast-paced, intricate and thoroughly captivating. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity Issue 6.