Top critical review
Take me down to infodump city
on 9 May 2016
It's a shame when a writer you've enjoyed produces a clunker like the "Merchant Princes" series. With this third volume it's clear why the original UK publisher abandoned the original six-book version half way through.
The whole thing suffers from being more intellectual exercise than passion project, and in this last volume the cracks have really begun to show.
The first half of "The Revolution Trade" was originally the fifth of six books, and seems to be a single-handed attempt to redefine the idea of "longeur". It crawls like a glacier with no sense of purpose beyond a blind impulse to grind your soul to dust.
The story is spread across three or possibly four grimly pedestrian, parallel versions of North America with a cast of characters as dull as they are unsympathetic.
In the vaguely steampunk Victorian setting a workers revolution unfolds in drab detail, with a gnawing sense of dread as a Nazi-like political party s-l-o-w-l-y emerges, but serves no obvious purpose beyond driving up word-count. It's a narrative dead-end, completely isolated from the main plot that affects none of the main characters or their interests.
In the notional "real" world and its cod-medieval twin the meandering cross-world dynastic conflict set up in parts one and two rolls on with no more chance of a satisfactory conclusion as any soap opera. Alliances and double-crosses operate according to a playground-game logic and code of honour, with characters swearing fealty like children joining a new gang.
A bolt-on denouement is constructed pretty much from whole cloth across mainly the second half of this book. An American intelligence agency appears from nowhere and rapid-prototypes unlikely deus ex machina technology. A faction emerges from the medieval world with a mission to cap off sub-plots and clear a path to the finale by culling the numerous but under-developed supporting cast.
It's no secret that the series was a deliberate grab at the lucrative disposable-epic-fantasy market. Sadly with with each book the written-for-hire quality and the writer's detachment from the sub-genre becomes more clear. Nowhere is this more obvious than the late-arriving author-voice infodumps bombed in either to clarify or invent events and actions not properly fitted into the story so far.
There's something of a myth that this is a restored original vision of a trilogy cut up into six parts by Charles Stross's US publisher. In fact the three book version reads like a fix-up of six. All three revised volumes have an obvious stop-and-restart half way. None is quite as obvious as the break-point in this third part, though, in which a sudden death cliff-hanger has a swift clunky ret-con into an A-Team style walk-away.
As I've said before: