The Bloodline Feud

by Charles Stross

Reviewed by Adam Armstrong

Some ideas are big, so big that they can't be told in one sitting. The author thinks--hopes--that he can tell everything in one big swallow, but the risk is that the audience will become lost in the sea of ideas. Then an outside influence comes along and tells the spinner of the tale that he should break it up into small bites. One such story is Charles Stross' The Merchant Princes Series, the first volume of which was published in 2004. With The Bloodline Fued, an omnibus of the first two novels, we have the chance to see the books as the author initially envisioned them.

Miriam is a tech journalist that has just found a story that can make her career. With the help of a researcher, Paulette, she gathers enough information to reveal how several big companies are involved in money laundering. Unfortunately, those companies own the magazine she works for and she finds Paulette and herself being escorted into the streets. While the book was put back into its original form it wasn't updated with the times, so there are quite a few dated references. Also we've seen an evolution of our media, especially here in the United States. Some of the media giants we have are being run with a particular bias, generally political. So while it isn't completely unheard of for a media company to try to shut up a journalist, it is a bit of a strain to believe they would be so harsh to someone that could potentially go elsewhere and topple them.

Miriam is depressed and stewing--and planning run the story and take vengeance on the company that treated her so roughly. She attempts to take solace in her adopted mother, instead gets a few harsh words that amount to "buck up" and a box of belongings that was found along with her birth mother. Miriam was found next to her murdered mother as an infant. Deciding to dig deeper into her mother’s murder, she finds a locket with the belongings and opens it. Inside is a strange symbol that transports her to another world. The locket transports her to a forest with people straight out of the Dark Ages; only the knight that tries to run her down has a machine gun.

Once she figures out how to return to her own world (looking at the locket again) she decides that this might be a much bigger story and a way to hide from the enforcers coming from the companies laundering money. Only something more sinister comes after her. She is kidnapped and taken to the other world only to find out that she is part of a royal family, a family that has built its fortune off of traveling between the worlds and trading. But in order to keep power they have to keep some of the more advanced technology, medicine, and knowledge to themselves. Our protagonist starts to grow used to the royal life, until she stumbles onto yet one more plot that could cost her life. Now she is running from dangers on both sides. She sees a way to bring up the people of the new world through introductions of technology, but what if there are more worlds with even more dangers.

The book gets off to quite a slow start, but not in a bad way. Stross slowly and laboriously lays down the exposition, building a world from the ground up. So much detail is given that the reader accepts the world completely. Though the novels won a series of awards, I have to wonder if the original novel released was nothing but exposition. Things don’t really start to pick up until about halfway through this omnibus. 

Stross also lays down a set of rules used by the family that prevent them from jumping around whenever they feel like it: only those of royal blood can travel, travel causes severe headaches and can kill someone who travels too much, and they have to be looking at a certain design that there are a limited amount of. This makes an interesting plot device that prevents people from jumping in, killing an enemy, and jumping back out. 

While all of the intrigue, murder plots, and internal fighting are interesting (though not anything different from other thriller/historical thriller type novels) what held my attention was the economics. It was like Stross wanted to write a book about economics, thought it was too boring, and wrapped it in a world-jumping, alternate history novel. It is fascinating to discover how one person with a set of ideas (copied patents in the novel) could really change the world in a short period of time. Sure it has happened before, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and in our lifetime, Steve Jobs. But this go-round we understand everything and watch as an entire civilization can be lifted up with an idea. 

If you’re a fan, use this opportunity to read it in its original form. If you’re new to the series it has plenty of ideas to hold your interest and gives you lots to think about long after you put it down. The rest of the series is also being re-released so you won’t have to wait long to see how it ends.