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Literature / The Merchant Princes Series

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A Fantasy series by Charles Stross, about a journalist named Miriam Beckstein who finds an Alternate Universe stuck in Medieval Stasis where her long-lost family are powerful traders who can travel between dimensions. The series was originally planned as four very long books, but the publisher got cold feet about the length of the books and insisted they be broken up into multiple volumes. As a result, the overall story is now split into two sub-series with a big Time Skip in the middle.

The "original series" consists of six books:

  • The Family Trade (2004)
  • The Hidden Family (2005)
  • The Clan Corporate (2006)
  • The Merchants' War (2007)
  • The Revolution Business (2009)
  • The Trade of Queens (2010)

In 2014, these were collected into three omnibus volumes named The Bloodline Feud, The Traders War, and The Revolution Trade, with some minor changes to the text.

The "next generation" series occurs after an approximately 20-year time skip and consists of three books:

  • Empire Games (2017)
  • Dark State (2018)
  • Invisible Sun (2021)

Not to be mistaken for "The Merchant Princes", part of The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov.

This series provides examples of:

  • Action Girl:
    • Downplayed with Miriam, she can't take anyone down during a fight, but she sure shoots people who try to kill her and doesn't wait to be rescued.
    • Brilliana and Olga, on the other hand, have no such limitations. In the Gruinmarkt, marksmanship is considered a womanly virtue, one that both women had instilled into them by their conservative fathers.
    • Rita is a lot more competent than anybody expected in a fight.
  • Action Mom: Miriam's adopted mom and real mother has a shotgun hidden in her wheelchair.
  • Alternate History: Each AU has a place where they diverged from normal Earth.
    • Miriam's Earth is also slightly alternate, as revealed in Book 5. Chemical Ali killed Saddam Hussein before the Iraq War even began and Paris Hilton's funeral is dominating the news. Also Robert Bork is Chief Justice of the SCOTUS, and there was apparently an incident of nuclear terrorism in Italy in the 1970s.
  • Alternate Universe: And there isn't just one; by book five, a number of others have been documented. It's worth noting that the series is quite a Deconstruction of the usual "Alternate Universe" setting. The logistical and geopolitical consequences are explored quite thoroughly.
  • Anyone Can Die: Just saying.
  • Arranged Marriage:
    • Both Miriam and her mother. Neither were happy about it at all.
    • Attempted and failed against Olga. In the Gruinmarkt, a man who rapes a woman can force her to marry him if he can pay her bride price, so a hired rapist is sent against Olga. He's expected to fail; Olga is a deadly shot. The actual plan is to blame the rape-o-gram on Miriam, so that Olga will dispose of her, which would restart the Clan civil war.
  • The Atoner: Miriam's mother, after Case Blue comes to pass; she poisons her own mother and seriously considers staying in Gruinmarkt when the USAF retaliates with nuclear carpet bombing. Her Clan bodyguard thinks otherwise, and drags her to New Britain just in time.
  • Ballroom Blitz Miriam's betrothal to Creon.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: They might be in the intelligence service, after all. Or Clan security. Or FTO, or a number of groups.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Brilliana and the rest of The Cavalry show up Just in Time to save Miriams and Erasmus's ass at the ticket office stand-off in Book 5.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The entire series is the epitome of this trope.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The Families, having a medieval mentality, genuinely do not understand that if they detonate multiple nukes in Washington, D.C., what's left of the U.S. government will not open negotiations with them, but rather declare apocalyptic vendetta.
  • Changeling Fantasy: Deconstructed harshly. Miriam is secretly a noblewoman with magical powers from a medieval-type world where she is betrothed to a prince, but the story explores what that would actually mean: her noble family gained their status by using their magical ability to smuggle drugs and weapons, and she has no rights of her own but is expected to marry to secure her family's political and economic standing.
    • Also subverted in that Miriam's "adopted mother" turns out to be her real mother.
  • The Chessmaster: Patricia Thorold-Hjorth, Iris, Angbard, and a whole lot of others.
  • Chummy Commies: The New American Commonwealth, established in 2003 in Timeline Three after the fall of New Britain's monarchy. The government is a nominally-democratic one-party statenote  running an economic program explicitly based on the New Economic Policy, and are introducing massive innovations from computer networks to antibiotic factories both to develop a defense against the United States, and to generally improve the lives of the people. Miriam and her Clan allies are working as hard as they can to step on the darker sister trope, as they know exactly how that kind of Communism turns out.
  • Conspiracy Redemption
    • By the end of Book 5, the Clan's leadership is mostly in sane hands, and Iris has maneuvered Miriam onto the throne, so now the good guys can defend the Gruinmarkt against invasion.
    • Book 6 has the old bad guys come out of the woodwork for one last ride and get cut down completely. It also has Erasmus Burgeson begin to clean up his own world's revolution.
    • In Empire Games, Homeland Security is a downplayed example, though it might not seem so at first glance. The Family Trade Organization was absorbed into the former, which now has the legal authority to engage in a lot of what it was doing in 2003. But by the same token, they're now operating within the law, and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are no longer in control, so you don't see an organization murdering everyone from suspected Family to civilians to their own agents with no oversight. They do threaten Paulette with some pretty nasty measures once she's captured, though.
  • Convenient Miscarriage: Downplayed in that it isn't all that convenient. Nice for Miriam personally, not so much for politics.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: the people of the Gruinmarkt and New Britain don't think like modern Americans, and Miriam really doesn't like having to play by Gruinmarkt rules.
  • Democracy Is Flawed: The New American Commonwealth wants to be as democratic as possible, but the revolutionaries of the Radical Party decided that too much emphasis on liberté without enough égalité and fraternité was a disaster waiting to happen, and they also had to pre-empt the possibility that democracy would let the people vote a monarchist candidate back in and restore the pre-Revolution dictatorship. Accordingly, their constitution is based on that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, only replacing Islam and sharia with the Party's radical-humanist ideology. So far it's working, and has built both an effective democracy and a strong deep state for defending against infiltrators from France and Timeline Two's America, but the system is facing traumatic tests as the revolutionary generation dies off.
  • The Ditz: Olga is set up as this in the first book, but it's really a case of Obfuscating Stupidity. Kara, on the other hand, is a straight example.
  • The Don: Duke Angbard fits the role.
  • Doom Magnet: Dear innocent bystanders, stay the hell out of range of Miriam (or the other plot lines for that matter) if you want to live. "Within range" means "on the same world."
  • The End of the World as We Know It: Gruinmarkt gets carpet-bombed with hydrogen bombs at the end of Book 6, and it's implied that the result is a global nuclear winter for the rest of that version of Earth. In later books we see plants and animals recovering, but it's still a dangerous place to visit and obviously the death toll was enormous.
  • Enemy Mine: The defining feature of New British and French foreign policy in Timeline Three was their mutual enmity. However, after the Revolution toppled New Britain, the King-in-Exile became a fixture of the French court, and his son a fast friend of le Dauphin, while France began ramping up production for another world war with the New American Commonwealth. For all their previous enmity, the New British had been a fellow monarchy, and a Communist revolution represents an existential threat to the idea of monarchism.
  • External Combustion: Played straight with Mike Fleming in Book 5. He survives because the bomb is wired to the doors, not the ignition, and explodes before he gets too close to the car.
  • Feuding Families: There was even a civil war 30 years ago, and Miriam's return threatens to start it up again.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: explored and discussed by Erasmus, after he read the history books delivered by Miriam—particularly the histories of the French and Russian revolutions in Miriam's modern-day world. When the revolution does come about in Erasmus's world, Erasmus himself tries his best to clamp down on the security services to make sure that no analogue of Dzerzhinsky or Himmler comes to power. He nearly fails but for the intervention of the newly-fled Clan, which had its own bone to pick with the security directorate.
  • Gambit Pileup:
    • By the third book, there are at least five different factions all either shooting at each other or inches away from doing so. This is Lampshaded when Miriam, in the second book, asks whether there's anyone in her entourage not working for the secret service. Her maid Kara responds, "Not me!"
    • The second trilogy is even worse, with multiple factions crossing Timelines Two and Three, most of whom don't even know about more than maybe three of the others, and don't know what those three are up to beyond something. This eventually leads to a US-backed counter-coup of the Commonwealth, despite no evidence of an original coup, only for the DHS to realise they miscalculated badly when they learn what the DPR have been planning.
  • Gambit Roulette: Iris has been running the whole plot from behind the scenes.
  • Genre Shift: It starts out exhibiting more fantasy tropes (noble families in Medieval Stasis; magical-seeming phenomena mediated through a Celtic-knotwork–style sigil), but by the midpoint the series is clearly economic and military science fiction. This is in part the result of Executive Meddling: one publisher already had an option on Stross's next SF novel, so he started this series as fantasy in order to be able to get it published by another company.
  • Giving Radio to the Romans: How Miriam gets rich in New Britain. By the end, with the Clan chased out of Gruinmarkt and resettled in New Britain, Miriam has decided—with the consensus of the leadership in general—that technology brokering will be how they'll support themselves.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion, though Miriam considers it.
    • This trope is Zig Zagged. They consider it, and ultimately everyone agrees to support if that's what she wants, which is surprising in the socially conservative culture of the Gruinmarkt. That's justified by both an inversion of Politically Correct History - people actually do understand the value of that kind of thing, because in that kind of culture it can prevent blood feuds and Death by Childbirth - and a possible Batman Gambit. In the end Miriam decides to keep it for political reasons. But then she has a Convenient Miscarriage, so it wouldn't matter. And then the Gruinmarkt is destroyed, so she wouldn't need her claim to power in their political structure anyway.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: We meet Erasmus suffering from tuberculosis, convinced that he'll soon die. Subverted in that Miriam's antibiotics ultimately save his life.
  • Invisible President: Although George Bush and Dick Cheney appear as characters on-page occasionally, their names are never used (except for on one page near the very end of Book 6 after both characters are dead), even though names of other public figures, such as Ashcroft and Scalia, are used more or less freely. The text, and all the other characters (even those for whom it makes no sense to do so), refer to the president and vice president by their supposed CIA code names, BOY WONDER and WARBUCKS. This was vastly toned down in the 2012 editions. Cheney gets named a half-dozen times in volume 2, with almost three dozen namings in volume three.
  • Kissing Cousins: because the dimension-hopping is genetically recessive, the family is braided - people have to marry other clan members in order to ensure the children inherit it, but to avoid inbreeding, those family members can't be too closely related. There are a lot of second-cousin or first-cousin-once-removed marriages.
  • La RĂ©sistance: The Levelers in New Britain. It starts sliding down the slippery slope towards The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized after a fashion, though Erasmus is fully aware of the possibility and determined not to let it happen.
  • Mad Doctor: Dr. ven Hjalmar—not actually mad, but definitely completely unethical and outright creepy.
  • Medical Rape and Impregnate: Dr. ven Hjalmar does this to Miriam with her fiance's sperm.
  • Medieval Stasis: Thoroughly explained and explored in Gruinmarkt, and the new guard of Clan members want to drag Gruinmarkt out of the middle ages. They are opposed by older clan members and the hereditary nobility, which causes the friction of the story.
  • The Men in Black: The Family Trade Organization, which is set up somewhere around book three or four to investigate the world-hoppers and the threat they pose. Mike Fleming discovers in Book Five that WARBUCKS is the one pulling the strings, and is using it to destroy the evidence that he was involved with the Clan before his reentrance into politics.
  • Mighty Whitey: Miriam tries this, but her plans get repeatedly derailed because she gets caught in everyone else's byplay.
  • Misapplied Phlebotinum: A minor version is played straight at first, and a major part of the plot is ending that. The Clan has the ability to teleport between worlds, and they are using it to get rich by smuggling drugs past international boundaries and selling high-tech innovations to a low-tech setting. However, the system used at the start of the story is limited to what individuals can carry and it's unsafe to make trips more than once or twice a day, putting a sharp limit on the weight and volume of their interdimensional cargo. And trade is risky for cultural reasons (such as illegality) in both worlds. After Miriam throws a Spanner in the Works, people begin experimenting and work out ways to increase the amount carried, and she suggests that Giving Radio to the Romans would be a much higher-profit enterprise, given starter capital and a government that enforces patents.
  • Never Was This Universe: For the first couple books, the world Miriam grew up in could have been Real Life, the same world the reader is in, like numerous fantasy series that just happen to have a Masquerade. Eventually, though, there are offhand references to recent history playing out slightly differently.
  • Nuke 'em:
    • WARBUCKS uses a nuke against the Clan, but it misses and drops a bridge on the Clan's enemies instead.
    • KINGPIN orders the nuclear murder of every living thing in an alternate-world New England.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Olga tends to play the Dumb Blonde stereotype in social situations. She's actually a frighteningly competent soldier, and fills in for Angbard when the latter suffers a stroke.
  • Oh, Crap!: 'We just nuked the White House' she reminded him. 'What would you do in their shoes?' 'I'd-' His expression would have been funny if the situation hadn't been so serious.'Oh. Scheisse.'
  • Oppressive States of America: After the Clan renegades set off a nuke, Homeland Security quickly turned into a surveillance state. It's still America, though; a transcript of a conversation in Empire Games mentions that outright black-bag work like was done in the earlier books is not done and is prosecuted.
  • Outside-Context Problem: Everything is happening against a backdrop where the previous timeline hopping civilization's homeworld was crushed into a black hole.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Colonel Eric Smith is a Homeland Security spook, but one of his roles in the story is to explain in exhausting detail to Agent Gomez (a Stupid Evil Commander Contrarian) why the American dark state tries to avoid such things as assassination, kidnapping and forced conscription. Human intelligence assets are impossible to control by force, and blunt instruments are incredibly clumsy and unreliable; spies need to be persuaded that they're on the right side.
  • Properly Paranoid: a repeated motif is various characters being very careful when opening doors or entering houses - a wise decision, given the amount of booby traps in the series so far.
  • The Remnant: The Wolf Orchestra is what's left of a multigenerational scheme by the GDR to infiltrate the United States. There is no GDR anymore, and most of the Orchestra have settled into peaceful retired life in America, but there's still enough second and third-generation agents to form a sleeper cell when the call goes out.
  • Run or Die: after Plan Blue goes through, the progressive faction of the Clan realizes they have a very limited amount of time to get the hell out of Dodge.
  • Secret Police:
    • Clan Security. A morally-ambiguous version, as the boss, Duke Angbard, is ultimately a good man who's trying to maintain a very messed-up system and protect the Clan from another civil war.
    • New Britain's inspectors are essentially this trope, protecting the state from its own citizens.
    • Erasmus Burgeson sees that the New British revolution is about to try to set one up. He steps on it as quickly as he can.
    • After the 7/16 nuclear attack, the Department of Homeland Security receives this kind of authority, and the Fourth and Fifth Amendments both become largely theoretical concepts.
  • She Knows Too Much: Miriam is a journalist and tends to dig, which gets her in serious trouble on more than one occasion.
  • Shout-Out: The end of The Trade of Queens has one to Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God", of all things:
    Overhead without any fuss, the bombers were going out.
  • Squee Executed and named hilariously in The Merchants' War. ("SQUUEEEEEEEE!")
  • Schizo Tech: The Clan create schizo tech wherever they go. In addition, New Britain has minor elements of it all by itself.
  • Science Cannot Comprehend Phlebotinum: Averted - the Clan firmly believe that their world-walking ability is a unique power that nobody else can duplicate, but given tissue samples from world-walkers, the American scientists succeed in reverse engineering the ability quite easily.
  • Spanner in the Works: Miriam's very existence knocks several conspiracies out of the water, and then she brings her reform plan into play.
  • Stealth Pun: Most of the books in the first half have titles that have something to do with trade. The sixth book, however, carries a chess pun: "trading queens." Which does happen, with the Clan and the USA mutually decapitating each other with nuclear weapons.
  • Steampunk: New Britain has elements of this, with zeppelins and trains being bigger and more important than they are now in real life, but planes never took off and cars are just becoming popular.
  • Stupid Evil: Agent Gomez in Empire Games consistently suggests using nasty, brute-force black-bag techniques when dealing with Rita. She gets shut down each time because Colonel Smith knows that that's the wrong way to train a covert agent. The incident that takes the cake is when she suggests threatening Rita's grandfather with deportation because he lied about his Stasi connections when immigrating. Even if Gomez could persuade an immigration judge to care about a defection from the long-gone GDR, Kurt would be deported to a rich country where he had family, would be received with open arms as someone who fled the GDR, and probably given a pension. Her threat was completely worthless.
  • Teleport Interdiction:
    • "Doppelgangering," or having control of a facility in the same space in both America and the Gruinmarkt to prevent unwanted world-walking, is Security 101 for the Clan. Given that the Clan's Civil War nearly wiped them out, this is taken very seriously.
    • The antagonist in The Merchants' War strings ropes all over his castle to keep out the world-walkers.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: Played dead straight with Operation CARTHAGE. No One Could Survive That! for real.
  • Time Skip: Seventeen years between The Trade of Queens and Empire Games, after the destruction of the Gruinmark and the New British revolution.
  • The Un-Favourite (Miriam is often an outcast, since she lived for so long in her Earth)
  • United Europe: In Timeline Three, France has become this; the capital is now in St. Petersburg and Britain is a nuclear testing ground.
  • Vikings In America: The east coast of North America is ruled by Germanic kingdoms descended from a second wave of Norse settlement.
  • Wham Episode: At least one per book, but then Books 5 and 6 turn it up to eleven. Stop all the clocks.
  • Writer on Board: Stross occasionally takes time out from the plot to criticize US drug policy, though he usually weaves this into the text so it's not as noticeable. The twenty-years-later books also have their share of comments about US foreign policy and the excesses taken by a state in the name of "protecting" the public.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Almost all of the many characters get caught up knee-deep in intrigue and hatch their own elaborate plans. Predictably, everything starts going to hell very fast, and that's just the beginning...
  • Zeppelins from Another World: New Britain has very advanced zeppelin technology in lieu of heavier-than-air flight.

Alternative Title(s): The Family Trade, The Clan Corporate