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The Hidden Family: Book Two of Merchant Princes Mass Market Paperback – May 2 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Miriam Beckstein, aka Countess Helge Thorold-Hjorth of the Clan, finds her own world to conquer in this fast-moving sequel to The Family Trade (2004)—a neo-Victorian America ruled by an English king in exile. Determined to show her uncle, Duke Angmar, that a hidden branch of the Clan is responsible for past assassinations and present attempts on her life, Miriam tracks them to the world of New Britain. There, she connects with a pawnbroker-cum-revolutionary and begins her own revolution to demonstrate the higher profits found in intellectual property smuggling. Before long, Miriam is battling suspicious royal security and the hidden family's hit team at the same time. Stross continues to mix high and low tech in amusing and surprising ways. However, while giving a gritty SF portrait of the marvels of modern market economics and correcting the too pretty portrait of too many medieval fantasy lands, he sometimes overlooks the realities that constrain both. Still, less historically minded readers can lose themselves in Miriam's attempts to survive the Clan's equally dangerous high-stakes business and social games. Stross weaves a tale worthy of Robert Ludlum or Dan Brown. Agent, Caitlin Blasdell at Liza Dawson Associates. (June 9)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
The sequel to The Family Trade (2004) continues the adventures of Miriam, the high-tech journalist flung into a fantasy world that really does recall the early volumes of Roger Zelazny's Amber series. Miriam is now Lady Helge, and her family resembles one of the Mafia variety too closely for her own peace of mind. Meanwhile, she is the equivalent of a local capo. The locality in which she functions, at several levels of technology and ethics, is a well-drawn avatar of the Victorian era, whose people are, however, anything but helpless victims, and wouldn't be even if Lady Helge had far fewer scruples than she does have. Indeed, she is already showing enough scruples that, sooner or later, the family may notice--and being nice to clients is a big taboo for members of the hidden family. Laugh your way to an ending that clearly promises further enjoyable volumes. Roland Green
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
On the bad, the story continues to be bedeviled by jargon. Miriam still is too accomplished, too pre-set in convenient fashion to take over the situations. The characters still lack some depth and the romance, as it was in book one, reads as if Stross can't decide if he wants it realistic or as parody. And some of the questions answered seem a bit too pat or contrived. The book does come to some resolution at the end though it also obviously leaves room for more.
If the first book was mildly recommended, this one is as well, perhaps less so as one would hope for some improvements between one and two. The addition of the second world does add interest, however, so recommended it is, if not with a lot of excitement.
Very much mental chewing gum, The Hidden Family is a mildly interesting if sometimes irritating read. Miriam is a pleasantly strong female character but far too glib and adaptable to her circumstances while her circumstances are too accommodating for her. She manages to move through the action of the book without any serious obstacles to her plans. There's no sense that she could encounter a significant setback that would endanger her entire scheme at any moment that would require her ingenuity and intelligence to resolve.
Miriam knows all the questions and has all the answers, even in places she's never set foot in, before.
While most of the female characters come across as fairly strong, independent women they are interchangeable, without distinctive voices or personalities. There were times I had to re-read passages to determine which female character was speaking, when two or more were in a scene. Mr. Stross does slightly better at making the male characters distinct but all the men, every last one, are from Central Casting. None of the characters, male or female, inspire strong emotions in the reader. There is no 'evil' character he offers up that has a sympathetic side to them and there is no 'good' character that has a repellant side to them (except one that is never, ever exploited in either book). The supposedly Machiavellian maneuverings of her extended family are never very Machiavellian or very subtle and her brief confrontations with them at the end of the book come across more as petty familial squabbling than the nuanced maneuverings for advantage that the author intimates.
The 'romance' in the book has all the emotional heat of a clean, empty charcoal grill. While I appreciate that the author wants to focus on action and not sex I'd like to have seen why there was an intense attraction between Miriam and Roland rather than being told repeatedly it was there. While, in Denis Leary's words, 'chicks dig jerks' (sadly true) one cannot quite believe 'chicks dig wimps' even good looking, exquisitely dressed ones. Miriam isn't that shallow in other areas of her life, why is it the case with Roland?
Beyond these quibbles, Mr. Stross uses phrases like 'pocket torch' interchangeably with 'flashlight' and other differences in expression and slang that I can't think of specifically at this instant. There are continuity issues with the slang, minor characters and settings that a good editor should probably have caught.
One last thing. It's pneumatic tires not pneumonic tires. A good editor should have caught that, too.
My husband is a fan of Zelazny which is why he's drawn to these books and it was on his recommendation I read them. I won't be rushing to read the third book in the series if there is one.
In the first volume, The Family Trade, freelance journalist Miriam Beckstein discovers that she isn't Miriam Beckstein, but Helge Thorvold-Hjorth, a member of a clan in another dimension that has discovered how to travel to our own, and have set up a drug dealing business in order to buy goodies for their otherwise primitive, barely post-feudal, lifestyle. Think medieval mafia and you will have the big picture. In between various attempts on her life Miriam realizes that the Thorvold-Hjorth business model has reached its limits and she sets off, credit card in hand to make money where no journalist has gone before. Hence this novel, The Hidden Family.
Miriam, in the process of trying to discover who is plotting against her, discovers that there is more than one plot afoot. Somebody else besides the Clan can trip the dimensions fantastic and this new group has discovered an entirely new world of their own, something of a combination of an early 19th Century lifestyle with a good deal of modern science mixed in. Call it techno-Gothic. With three worlds before her, Miriam quickly realizes the opportunities for profit and sets about making a large profit while dodging assassins and plots to wrest her position and power away from her.
This is a great story, but it has some severe believability problems. The most glaring of this is how easy it is for Miriam to set up as an entrepreneur in a world that frowns on women doing much more than child-bearing and tatting. Especially when her stock in trade are things like advanced automobile breaks. Going in the other direction her plan is to track down artworks that were lost in this world, but still exist in the other. It seems to me that setting up in business as a rediscoverer of lost masterpieces is bound to attract a lot of unwelcome attention.
However, if you can manage the willing suspension of disbelief, this is an interesting story that is completely different from run-of-the-mill dimension hopping. Miriam is tough and determined to succeed, and if she doesn't get caught, she is destined to be a billionaire. Now how often do you get to read a series about a billionaire journalist?
I have become a fan of Charles Stross, and have now read all five of the novels (which I am aware of) that he has in print. He definitely knows how to grab the reader (at least this reader!).
I liked this particular book better than I liked The Family Trade. The Family Trade seemed to me to start out awkwardly. I have done some (so far uncommercial) writing myself, and I have noticed something I think of as the "transition point" -- before this point, I feel like I'm just making stuff up, while after this point, I feel like it's all real and the characters and the situation are forcing things in a certain direction. The Family Trade felt like Stross "just making up stuff" almost halfway through. If I hadn't read others of his before this one, I might have given it up as a loss. The second half certainly took off!
The Hidden Family, of course, started out without this problem, the characters and the main background having been already set up in the first book. I liked the way Stross thickened the plot by bringing in another alternate world along with the long-lost kinfolk, as well as the intrigue etc. (no spoilers here!).
Others have commented on the realism of the pre-modern settings, Stross' grasp of factors that many fantasy authors tend to ignore, and so on. I have only one minor (very minor!) quibble, and that is the fact that Stross writes like an Englishman, and sometimes his American characters don't sound American to me at all! There is one sequence in the story where one character is telling the other to "come on!," and I kept hearing it in my mind's ear as "COME on," rather than the American "come ON." I suppose it came out like that because of the surrounding dialogue etc. As I said, this is very minor (most readers probably would never notice), and won't keep me from buying his next novel in hardcover, the minute it comes out.
As a reviewer noted upthread, it's almost like the basics for one really chewy, excellent book were split into sketchy form in two books. It's rather frustrating because the promise of so many strong, interesting elements are never fully developed.
The main character is fine; rather a relief, in fact. She's smart and resilient without being hokey-spunky. (I'm really, really tired of spunky heroines.) She's fairly well filled out, though not really developed. C'mon, she's deliberately changing entire worlds to suit her convictions. That rates some serious background right there. Iris, her feisty ex-radical adoptive mother, is a fine character gone begging. Brill, the relocated fugitive from the medieval world, provides some interesting takes on modern life but even her dazzled adoption of the modern world is basically occassional filler.
The lack of strong character development presented a problem for me in keeping some of the byzantine power struggles straight. Too many of the players left me wondering, "Now, which one is HE again?" Most of them are little more than names, with maybe a titch of physical description thrown in once. A book built around warring factions needs hooks at least to keep overt team rosters straight.
I *liked* this book, so don't take this review as a pan. It's not. The book is a fast, fun, interesting read. It just whets interest that it doesn't really fulfill. The basics are there; it just could have been a terrific book instead of just a pretty good one.