The Family Trade is secondary-world fantasy by an economist and mafia enthusiast, to put it in the most crude of terms; an enjoyable, thoughtful and dark fantasy tale with some fantastic undercurrents.  Stross' own enthusiasms and pre-fiction work come through a little strongly, but the work stands up on its own merits as a modern fantasy in the same vein as things like The Magicians (without the references).

Stross' characters are perhaps the weakest part of this novel.  Drawing heavily on mafia themes, most of the characters fit into the obvious boxes that that calls up, from Don to reluctant member who wants to go straight; our protagonist, dropped into the secondary world unexpectedly, reacts far more humanly than most in that situation (a pattern set by Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia) but Miriam is still something of a blank slate.  She's used as a way to shake things up and as a way to explain things about the Clan and their cross-worlds status as much by Stross as by the characters of the novel, and her thoughts as an economist don't come naturally given what we're given of her background; she seems, indeed, something of a Mary Sue for Stross.

The plot of The Family Trade is stronger, however.  We have a lot of different intrigues, most of which tie together, and a shady villainous force (or two) politicking their way against the main faction of the Clan and against Miriam; this drives the plot forward at quite a pace as their actions, more and less underhand by turns, force Miriam to take action.  Simultaneously we see her fighting against the feudalism of the secondary-world she is thrust into, wondering why, with the ability to cross the worlds at will, no one has started an Industrial Revolution; in point of fact the reasons behind this seem quite contrived (they're never explained except with reference to something that, if any of the worldwalkers had picked up a basic economics or history textbook, they'd have known).  But it does allow Stross to have some interesting thoughts and ideas on economics and politics, which play well into the plot of the novel, and he never allows his beliefs or thoughts to take centre stage too strongly.

All in all, The Family Trade, whilst by no means a perfect novel, is a strong piece of work, let down by so-far weak characterisation; as the first instalment in an ongoing series, I hope that this is something Stross will address further down the line, and he has captured enough of my interest for me to want to find out.
Stross' loose sequel to Halting State is a second techno-thriller crime novel; following, once again, Liz Kavanaugh (now of the Rule 34 squad) in a series of crimes that baffle the imagination, along with Anwar, an ex-con caught up in some seriously dodgy international dealings, and the Toymaker, a paranoid schizophrenic whose real name we never learn.  The novel is, in some ways, an attack on the Singularity and AI (as usually understood); and in others, a fun exploration of a number of ideas.

Stross' characters are, once again, second-person; it's always you.  There's bigger problems here than in the first novel, however; Kavanaugh is burned out to such an extent that it's hard for the reader to understand why she's taking her job even as seriously as she's taking it, and her personal life is only seen when it's useful, without surfacing most of the time - this is, I find, quite an issue here, because it's very jarring to see her personality undergo such massive shifts.  The Toymaker is also a caricature, in the worst sense of the term; he's a caricature of paranoid schizophrenic psychopathy, which links in rather grimly with Stross' habit of caricaturing all sorts of aspects of the world (from paperwork, through corporations, to government itself), to take a lot of realism from the novel and turn it into satire-without-seriousness.  Anwar is the only really well-drawn viewpoint-character, but he is at least well-drawn (and possibly the sole one in the novel, viewpoint or otherwise); conflicted, human, without breakneck emotional switches and odd personality changes without reason behind them and a brilliant character with a good sense of humour combined with a guilty conscience ("As long as you avoid the fermented fruit of the vine, you're not entirely doing it wrong: the Prophet said nothing about Deuchars IPA, did he?" p19).

The plot is a murder-mystery techno-thriller; it doesn't make much sense and is only ever at best half-resolved, with a lot of active deus ex machina, occasionally acknowledged but all too often just ignored.  It's also reliant on people who are supposedly intelligent acting in ridiculous, if not stupid, ways; apparently unable to notice what's happening around them or put things together - this occasionally does get lampshaded, but most often it's just taken as read, and the whole thing just seems to flail at such a loose end overall that it really doesn't seem to go anywhere, though occasionally it gets a nice block of Author Filibuster.

However, Stross' use of Anwar and his language and style do draw the reader in, and make it an enjoyable novel to read; fast-paced, interesting and stylish, Rule 34 is not the best read on the planet by any means, but it does have its upsides.
Charles Stross’ 3rd novel in the brilliant Laundry series is on a par with The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue, the preceding novels in the sequence. Once more we’re following Bob Howard in his battles with ISO 9000 standards, managers, auditors, and Lovecraftian horrors from beyond this dimension trying to eat his soul and mind…
This outing with Howard is possibly his darkest and most damaging yet. It opens with a well-deserved warning; however horrific Jennifer Morgue got, and whatever Howard had to do, The Fuller Memorandum goes beyond and makes it worse; Stross has conjured up some seriously awful situations for Howard to end up in, including kidnapped by crazed cultists and (once more) up in front of the Auditors – for something worse than ever before.
The plot’s the usual conceit – double-dealing, backstabbing, betrayal from unexpected sources, mind-eating horrors, computer geekery, domestic drudgery, zombie assassins, and Russian FSB agents dabbling with the occult and playing both sides off against the middle. We learn much more about Angleton, Howard’s boss, and about the Laundry, as well as the various threats-from-beyond that Howard has to deal with in this novel; the world of the Laundry is, in fact, given more fleshing out (perhaps an ill choice of term…) and background than it has ever yet had before, and Stross does it beautifully. The plot advances with our knowledge, and whilst some developments are obvious to a reader Howard himself also learns them (even if he doesn’t tell us, he acts on what he knows). Despite this, Stross still throws some serious curveballs; he’s a bit of a genius in that regard, dropping sudden switches on us at a moments notice.
All in all then, this latest outing of our favourite computer geek cum warrior against the Beings Beyond is a brilliant piece of work; whilst one does have to have read the previous novels in a sequence to get all the references and jokes, that’s a pleasure to do anyway! Highly recommended.
This book was won in a contest run by Graeme of Graeme’s Fantasy Book Reviews.
This pastiche spy thriller is the second in the Laundry series, following the Atrocity Archives and preceding The Fuller Memorandum, which is currently winging its way to me courtesy of Graeme's Fantasy Book Review. Whilst I wasn't too aware, whilst reading it, of the pastiches that underlay the Atrocity Archives - not in a specific sense, anyway - The Jennifer Morgue is much more bluntly a Fleming-alike (indeed, a riff of a few Bond novels/films) and makes that element of the novel utterly integral to the plot.

The story moves in a way somewhat like a James Bond novel - if you threw Lovecraftian horrors in as villains, an inhuman creature in as the "opposition ally", and a computer geek (named Bob Howard - homage maybe?) in place of James Bond.  Stross doesn't just create a fun scenario - which that definitely and undeniably is, no? - but also uses it to good effect to create a novel which goes beyond the Fleming source material to be a funny and thrilling novel in its own right.  The plot draws on a variety of Fleming's novels and the films, but most strongly on a combination of Thunderball and The Spy Who Loved Me; however, it doesn't slavishly adhere to their principles and there's a twist at the end which - whilst somewhat telegraphed - is still well handled, although it does rob one character of a lot of development and everything else.  That robbing is not ignored but is handled as the conclusion of the novel, thankfully; Stross isn't one to make the mistake of leaving untouched a problem he's created.

He is, as usual, pretty strong on characterisation; Bob Howard is drawn very well, as is Ramona - the spy who loved him, if you will - and they're more than just Bond-novel archetypes; in fact, Howard is anything but, being very much the computer geek who strayed into the wrong story much of the time, and some of the time a panicked Bond-style hero more worried he's going wrong than anything else.  The characters are fresh and human, worrying about human relationships and human matters as well as the cosmic chaos they're trying to police, which is a skilful line to walk; Stross, however, tapdances down it spinning a plate as he goes, never missing a note.

All told, Stross has once more created a brilliant piece of pastiche and made it, in its own right, fantastic.  Really enjoyable and unmissable, I can't wait for the arrival of the sequel!


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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