The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross
Recently, I was privileged to see a juggler keep an uncountable number of balls in the air for a short period of time. It was one of the more remarkable feats of physical ability I have seen. For an achingly beautiful minute or so, the balls seemed to transcend gravity and float in the air. Then, as is the case with all acts of magic, it had to end. He smiled in response to the audience’s sigh and caught the balls. With an apology he left the stage because our time was up.
So it is that we reach the end of the sixth in the Merchant Princes series. It’s The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross (an apparent reference to the opium trade) and he manages to catch most of the balls he thought were important while moving to a resolution of sorts. Perhaps I really should have browsed through The Revolution Business before starting out on this concluding volume.
Frankly, leaving this much time between episodes is completely nuts. At my age, memory grows fallible and, worse, interest declines. As you read any series, you play a game with the author, trying to second guess where he might take the plot, how he might resolve narrative arcs. More than a year has passed since reading Volume Five and I couldn’t remember who many of these people were. Worse, all the little info dumps slowed things down at the beginning without completely fulfilling their purpose of enlightenment. When you are talking about the accumulated wisdom of five books, the sixth had better be good, or die because high expectations are not met. Publishers please note. As a reader I could not care less about your commissioning cycle or the commercial decisions as to when a hardback should be released as a mass market paperback. If we are in the middle of a potentially interesting series, we should just get on with it.
Well, the best you can say about this ending is that it ends. When this all started out with The Family Trade in 2004, we had a richly embroidered story about Miriam Beckstein. It ends as thin gruel with Miriam a modest character, no longer really the mover or shaker she promised to be. Perhaps that’s how life works. The people who emerge from the crowd as potential leaders can just as quickly be submerged back into the faceless tide again. Salience is transitory. But when an author invests so much effort in building up a character and then sustains her as a major player for the first three or so books, it says a great deal about an author losing focus or direction to effectively throw her away. The story becomes more important than the characters (than any of the characters). In the end, everyone is moved around the gaming board like pawns so they can finish where they are supposed to finish. There’s no interest or attempt to involve us emotionally in any of the outcomes. It just ends.
At this point, I cannot avoid mentioning an alarming note in the Acknowledgements. “My agent, Caitlin Blaisdell, nudged me to make a radical change of direction. . . David Hartwell and Tom Doherty encouraged me further. . .” So there was a conspiracy to persuade a fine author to throw away everything that was good about his previous books, and to subordinate everything to the plot. Well, in future Mr. Stross, I suggest you ignore what others tell you and stay true to who you are as a writer. You had fine instincts when you started off. To let it peter out like this is a creative disaster. Except, I place the blame more squarely on your agent. When you were deciding how to develop the plot going out of Volume Two into Volume Three, it should have been obvious to everyone on the inside that you were being very ambitious. At that point, your agent should have renegotiated your contract. You have clout. The publisher would have accepted a proposal to split the six book series into a trilogy and then sequences of books set in the different worlds in parallel. This would have let you do justice to the characters and the scale of your imagination (or perhaps that was just too boring a prospect for you). As it is, you opened the floodgates on your imagination and watched the flow spread out across the countryside going into Volume Four and then realised you were constrained by the six-book limit. This forced you to put the brakes on in Volume Five and then end it like this. Worse, you have also been persuaded to borrow stylistically from your other work. If I had wanted to reread your stories with CAPITALS about bombs going off thanks to nameless agencies, I would have picked other books off my shelves.
You are a writer who could become dominant, but you will throw away major goodwill if you allow the publication of books like this. Frankly, it is an insult to loyal fans.