L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

20 November 2008 Blog Home : November 2008 : Permalink

The Irritating Mr Stross

I like Charlie Stross - or rather I enjoy his website and many of his books even though I've never met him in person. However I'm sorry to say that I'm going to put part of this post as a negative amazon review because the latest book I read from him really really annoyed.

That book is "The Merchant's War", book 4 of the Merchant Princes series. The premise behind the series was kind of fun - parallel earths that are less developed than our earth combined with what you can do when only a few people with a certain genetic mutation can travel from world to world. Indeed this sort of half-fantasy/half-SF (what I think I've seen someone call 'hard fantasy') is a genre that I really like because while there is handwavium around there isn't much of it, there is the promise that at some point it may be explained, and for the most part you're left with humans doing stuff in comparatively real world environments. Hence, after I tried and enjoyed book one, I took the opportunity of my next visit to a bookshop which sold them to buy books 2 & 3 of the series.

They were OK. It was a fairly good thing that I bought the two together because the story had only a limited amount of resolution at the end of book 2. It wasn't a bad ending but you were left with the desire to know what happened next. Looking back however that was actually a pretty good ending as book 3 ended with a large explosion - literally- followed by the heroine being accosted by muggers. However it seemed like there could be resolution of at least some of the threads in book 4. Amazon.fr just shipped me Book 4 and it is worse than book 3 in terms of ending. At this point you need to read books 2-4 in a single session and you still end up with an almighty cliffhanger at the end of book 4. It doesn't help that book 4 shows us a possible way for stuff to be resolved in one plot thread that is then totally overshadowed by stuff in other plot threads that result in the final scene being a battle fought on two worlds plus a skirmish on a third. At the end of the book the battle has yet to be won and indeed practically the last sentence is (I paraphrase) "I have a cunning plan..." In other words if you thought the cliffhanger at the end of book three was annoying you ain't seen nothing yet.

Oh and that ignores the irritating political views that Mr Stross insists on parading before us. The problem in book 4 (and to some extent in book 3) is that the US government - in particular a lightly touched up GW Bush executive - gets involved. Mr Stross doesn't like Bush or any of his advisors or policies and seems to be intent on casting them as the baddies while other rulers in the books are far harsher in their treatment of dissent. Both the medieval usurper Egon - who seems like a sort of Vlad the impaler type - and King John Frederick III of New Britain - a classic authoritarian tyrant - kill suspected enemies in job lots and are far more concerned with their own survival than the welbeing of their subjects but yet we get sympathetic breaks for each one. We don't get this for "Daddy Warbucks" the Vice President and those reporting to him, depsite the fact that these people are in fact, unlike the other rulers, doing their best to protect their (US) citizens from nuclear bombs.

Although the politics irritates, Stross is a good enough story teller that I'm willing to ignore that bit, and your average Guardianista will probably agree with them so just because it doesn't meet my 'Ghengis Khan was a centrist wuss' political leanings is no real reason to skip the book or the series. Indeed in a number of ways this series is reminiscent of Eric Flint's 1632 books. Obviously it isn't the same but part of the challenge - to bring modernization to late medieval/early rennaissence cultures - is quite similar. And, for that matter, the other part of the book where people in this world try to get a handle on these world-walkers is good techno-thriller stuff. So in other words the concept is great. And while I find some of the characters a bit cardboard cutouty the main ones are all done well. So in theory this is a series with a lot of promise.

But it is seriously let down by the execution. To misquote Lady Bracknell to have one cliffhanger may be regarded as a misfortune, to have two looks like carelessness. I find it surprising that Tor actually let the books end like this because it seems pretty basic stuff to round them off better. On the other hand the Armageddon Reef series from David Weber has only moderate rounding off at the ends of the books so maybe this is a Tor speciality. In which case I'm glad I mostly read Baen books. You can go "Oh John Ringo No" as much as you like but he manages to provide closure at the end of each book even when he's had to split a planned book in to two because it has grown too long and the same goes for pretty much every other Baen author.

In summary: don't bother buying this series until someone reports that book 5 (or maybe book 6 or 7) has most of the plot threads resolved or unless you like being left dangling. But if you do like it or the others in the series please buy it by clicking on the link at this page...