Number three in the series, this book really takes its time to get going, but after a hundred pages of meh it picks up and is back to the pace and quality of its pre-decessor. Again, like The Hidden Family this is the first half of a larger story that got split for some reason, but the split is handled better this time, ending on a nice cliff-hanger but without too many loose ends. As the third installment in a large series, there is of course the problem of how to bring a new reader up to speed who hasn't read the earlier volumes, but this is done without the repetition being too irritating for someone who has started at the beginning. My only niggle is that some exposition is handled somewhat maladroitly as "transcripts" of bugged conversations, but these transcripts (and the organisations and people making them) aren't obviously used. Perhaps they'll show up in a later volume. But I can forgive this, as to a large extent these solve the problem I noted in The Family Trade, that the plots and schemes within plots and schemes are too opaque to the reader. These serve to remove the veils somewhat. Again, I recommend it, but with the proviso that it will work a lot better if you've read the previous two books.
A disappointment after the first two books. Stross is a very good novelist but the writing in this book feels rushed with too much anachronistic dialogue and slow plot development. It is also a great shame that he resorts to manipulating the reader with these cliffhanger endings. Other writers seem able to deliver long-running series with multiple story arcs yet at the same time provide a coherent, self-contained narrative to each book. If he carries on in this stlye, all Charles Stross will do is end up alienating fans.
I've always believed that every book of a series needs to be able stand alone, as a valid novel in its own right. These don't, partly because Tor chopped each one in half, partly because of Stross's habit of ending on a cliffhanger. This is more of a single novel in several volumes, and viwed in that light, it works.
It's not without faults; I like a novel to be like a symphony, with fast bits and slow bits, loud bits and quiet bits, but the pace never slows. My usual criticism of fast-paced novels is that they're too superficial, but this one gets away with it through sheer length; it has time to fill in the details. There are too many cliffhangers for my taste; too many crises all happening at once, but never mind. It's good fun.
This is the first half of what was planned as the second book; more complications emerge; perhaps not so much happens, but if you have the next volume, it doesn't matter.
The "Merchant Princes"series have to be read consecutively.This,the third,is just as good as the first two.The plot is often complex,with events happening in three parallel worlds simultaneously.The only reason that I did not give five stars is that I prefer this authors "Laundry" series.