Saturday, November 22, 2008

Book Review: The Merchants' War by Charles Stross

Possible subtitle: Stupid cover, good book.

As a reader and hopeful author, I often wonder if authors get any say in the cover of their novel. I'm pretty sure the answer is no, otherwise we wouldn't get all of these covers where the main character looks nothing like how they're described, or situations that don't really happen in the book.

The Merchants' War by Charles Stross -- Book 4 of the Merchant Princes if you're American like me, Book 3 if you're in the UK like Stross -- has a cover that invited quite a bit of ridicule from my husband, and in fact, I'd be pretty embarrassed to read the book in public. It's the sort of cover you expect to see on one of those blogs where they photoshop a new title on a Choose Your Own Adventure book or cheap 80s video game (I'd provide links, but I'm too lazy to go looking for them).

How bad is the cover? Well, you can see it in Amazon's listing for the book. In case you can't tell, yes, the men in medieval armor and surcoats do in fact have guns at their belts, and are firing more guns at a man flying over a courtyard in an ultralight glider aircraft. Shockingly enough, this actually happens in the book, although the perspective in the cover is way off.

And yet, despite the fact that the book has armor-clad, gun-toting men firing at ultralights very late into it, I enjoyed it immensely. Like the three (or two) books before it, it's a fast-paced page turner of a sci-fi fantasy crime thriller detective adventure novel. There's a little bit of everything thrown into the mix. Political intrigue, drug trafficking, government conspiracies, shocking revelations, the hint of romance, gun fights and more.

The Merchants' War starts to answer questions that readers have probably been asking all along (at least I have). Is the clan's ability to walk between worlds magical or some sort of genetic mutation? Are there more than three worlds that can be reached by those means? Are there worlds that are more techoligically advanced than the world we live in? I won't share the answers that are revealed, because I try to avoid spoilers, but I will say that I was satisfied with how these avenues were explored.

There are a couple of places where The Merchants' War almost lost me. When a government scientist starts throwing out ten-dollar science-y words that I've never seen before and can't even figure out how to pronounce so I can ask my bio-geek husband what they mean, and it's 2am, I feel tempted to put a book down. And most of the plots involved the DEA, FBI, and other acronyms failed to grab me, just as they did in the previous book. And there's one plot twist, that I again don't want to give away, but I find it pretty implausible.

Those quibbles aside, I really enjoyed the book and often had a hard time putting it down to eat meals and sleep. The characters continue to be strong, and I enjoyed the new revelations about my favorite secondary character, Erasmus Burgeson. My previous issue with weak dialog seems to have completely disappeared. The plot moves along nicely, and I'm constantly guessing as to how much of what characters reveal is true, and how much of it is carefully-cultured lies meant to manipulate the characters and the reader. I'd highly recommend this series to just about anyone, silly cover paintings aside.


Susan de Guardiola said...

I bought this book this weekend on the strength of your review here. Who knows when I'll have time to read it!

AJ said...

Oh, I hope you enjoy it! Have you read the previous three?

Susan de Guardiola said...

Nope, haven't read any of them. But I've liked other Stross I've read (see the Rixo Books category index for my thoughts on Halting State) so I'm willing to give it a go, even starting mid-series.