Empire Games cover(Empire Games, by Charles Stross. Tor, 2017, 331 pp. $25.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

At long last, Charles Stross has produced another book in the “Merchant Princes” universe, a series which is basically near-future sci-fi in alternative-timelines guise. Empire Games is the first book in a new trilogy, with the second and third books scheduled for January 2018 and January 2019 respectively

Unfortunately, the book prior to Empire Games, The Trade of Queens, which concluded the original series, appeared in 2010, so even for those who read that series the characters and plot lines will likely have become hazy over time. I read the original series when it came out, and since then have started probably 500 or 600  sci-fi novels and finished maybe a third of them (so many books, so little time). If the characters and events from the earlier series were fresher in mind, I’d almost certainly have enjoyed Empire Games more than I did. Throughout the book, I found myself muttering, “now who exactly is that and what’s the back story here?”

Stross does, however, provide enough information within Empire Games so that a reader unfamiliar with the original series can follow the book, if not fully enjoy it.

As for the plot, backdrop and characters, Empire Games starts in 2020 in a parallel timeline to our own, in which renegade members of a ruling elite/criminal syndicate nuked the White House in 2003, and were in turn, along with the rest of their society, nuked back to the Stone Age by President Rumsfeld.

The resulting American society is similar to the present-day USA, but under the thumb of an even more oppressive security state which utilizes nearly all-pervasive surveillance, and in which the government seems to be a theocracy, with the fundies, Mormons, and (yes!) Scientologists embedded in the power structure.

In this horrid situation, a branch of the DHS makes an offer she can’t refuse to Rita Douglas, the (unavoidably abandoned) daughter of Miriam Burgeson, a minister in a democratic government in a third timeline, that is in arms race with the reactionary, monarchist French Empire, and that is conducting a crash technological/industrial revolution due to terror that the paranoid, violence-prone “Americans are coming.” This leads to the reason, in part, why the DHS forcibly recruited Rita — to act as a spy on her mother’s government and society.

This is a grossly inadequate summary of Empire Games, but there are six previous books in this “universe” that provide the necessary back story, and it’s impossible to summarize them in a few hundred words (even if I remembered them more clearly).

That said, there’s a lot to like about Empire Games, starting with the dedication: “For Iain M. Banks, who painted a picture of a better way.” Other positive aspects include Stross’s (as always) well drawn characters, intricate plot, and his accurate portrayal of the ruthlessness of the American government. The book even has an intriguing and unexpected twist right at the end.

One inadvertently funny facet of the book is that several of its characters live in the Phoenix suburbs, and Stross mentions with apparent horror a temperature of “almost a hundred Fahrenheit outside.” I couldn’t help but smile when I read that. In Arizona, we have a term for temperatures of “almost a hundred Fahrenheit”: “Winter.” (Here in Tucson, the forecast is for a high of 88 on Friday [Feb. 10], and it’ll quite possibly hit the mid-90s in Phoenix on that same day.)

The only real complaint I have about Empire Games is that an explanatory prologue would have been a huge help in comprehending and fully enjoying a book so far separated from its predecessors.

Highly recommended, nonetheless. But read the previous six “Merchant Princes” books first.

* * *

(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover

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