Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I thought I had written something about Charlie Stross in the past, but a quick google-check doesn't reveal anything. I find him a very frustrating, hit-or-miss sort of writer. His politics are typical muddle-headed hedonist-leftist twaddle - he's the sort of reflexive-instinctive 'libertarian' whose ideals could only exist in the comforting bosom of Mother Government. But he occasionally has a bright spark of lively plot and prose - most especially in the cubicle satire/spy novel/Lovecraftian pastiche The Atrocity Archives and the first volume of his Zelazny-Princes in Amber pastiche, the Family Trade. Come to think of it, the books of his which I've tolerated or liked have, by and large, been piggyback science-fictional rides upon the fantasy giants of the past. He's better known for his singularity-themed novels, but I took a strong disliking to the single example of that particular flavor of Stross, so pfft on that.

Anyways, I finally got around to reading the fourth volume of his "Merchant Princes" series, the Merchants' War, after skipping the hardback edition on the strength, or lack thereof, of the third volume, the Clan Corporate, which left me irritated and and a little bored with Stross's increasingly inept and sympathetic protagonist. The fourth volume picks up some steam by broadening the viewpoint of the narrative wildly, with less than a fifth of the book told from heroine Miriam/Helge's dull, pointless point of view. There's lots of action in the fourth book, almost all of it occurring where Miriam ain't, which makes this installment a great improvement over the third book. So, yay on that front.

Sadly, Stross's ability to maintain an American 'voice' seems like it's slipping badly with the Merchants' War. While I've been known to indulge heavily in anglicianisms like extraneous 'u's in words like 'colour', I do accept that there are distinctions between the standard American 'voice' and the British 'voice', and the Scottish Stross doesn't do too well in this volume, repeatedly having American characters pick up 'torches' or talk about being 'in hospital' and so forth. Since there's only one viewpoint character who could conceivably be pictured as "British", with every other major or secondary character either being Americans or native speakers of a teutonicized alternative-world feudal language, this kept yanking me out of the story and into an unwanted textual-analysis mode which I don't generally relish.

Also, the story doesn't so much end on a cliff-hanger as just *thwapt!* slaps up against the back cover, as if the last thirty pages just weren't bound with the rest of the manuscript. And what in previous books was a laudable refusal to inject his repulsive personal political views into an otherwise-contemporary hot-button narrative has broken down with this volume, as he wastes fifteen or twenty pages on a pointless, off-message, graceless insinuation that someone in the Reagan administration had apparently intended to blow up Boston in a fake-terrorist attack in the late Eighties, and he later has a sinister sock-puppet government spook spout stupid Truther claims about bin Laden having been a rogue agent of the American government, and salivating about the prospect of a terrorist nuke going off, again, in Boston. Bah.

Anyways, the series as a whole isn't a total waste of time, but the aspects which most attracted in the early volumes have faded or been left to the wayside, and the books are largely carrying themselves on the strength of plot, action, intrigue, and good old pulpy forward momentum. YMMV.

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