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Empire Games #1

Empire Games

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The year is 2020. It's seventeen years since the Revolution overthrew the last king of the New British Empire, and the newly-reconstituted North American Commonwealth is developing rapidly, on course to defeat the French and bring democracy to a troubled world. But Miriam Burgeson, commissioner in charge of the shadowy Ministry of Intertemporal Research and Intelligence—the paratime espionage agency tasked with catalyzing the Commonwealth's great leap forward--has a problem. For years, she's warned everyone: "The Americans are coming." Now their drones arrive in the middle of a succession crisis—the leader of the American Commonwealth is dying and the vultures are circling.

In another timeline, the U.S. has recruited Rita, Miriam's estranged daughter, to spy across timelines and bring down any remaining world-walkers who might threaten national security. But her handlers are keeping information from her.

Two nuclear superpowers are set on a collision course. Two increasingly desperate paratime espionage agencies are fumbling around in the dark, trying to find a solution to the first contact problem that doesn't result in a nuclear holocaust. And two women—a mother and her long-lost, adopted daughter—are about to find themselves on opposite sides of the confrontation.

336 pages, Hardcover

First published January 17, 2017

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About the author

Charles Stross

168 books5,550 followers
Charles David George "Charlie" Stross is a writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His works range from science fiction and Lovecraftian horror to fantasy.

Stross is sometimes regarded as being part of a new generation of British science fiction writers who specialise in hard science fiction and space opera. His contemporaries include Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, Liz Williams and Richard Morgan.

SF Encyclopedia: http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/...

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_...

Tor: http://us.macmillan.com/author/charle...

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 296 reviews
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,100 followers
December 24, 2017
I put off reading this Stross novel for the weirdest of reasons. I assumed, based on the blurb, (if not the series caption,) that it was part of the Merchant Princes books.

I was right. And I was wrong.

Much time has passed since the events of those Merchant Princes novels. We get to return to Miriam and her beau and her missing child, but best of all, the Merchant Princes are DONE. Revolution and a new government have taken over this alternate timeline, but as with all these Princes, there's a bit of traveling still going on. In fact, there's a lot.

Our America is its comfortable near-police state and it has technological means to travel across alternate worlds thanks to the necessity of protecting itself after that little bit of the destruction of the White House. The other world is trying desperately to learn from the mistakes of all previous revolutions and do it right and smart, avoiding all the pitfalls.

Unfortunately, our America is PARANOID as hell. It's all cold-war with them and this novel is a pretty pure piece of spy action, misunderstandings, lies, and pretty impressive political thought.

It just happens to revolve around neighboring time-lines, impressive world-building, and mysteries that go quite a bit deeper. Such as the old, old America that was technologically advanced but is now dead. Never mind that all our cold-war action is BETWEEN different Americas. :)

I was very impressed. I read all the other Merchant Princes novels and enjoyed them well enough even if I don't really put them on the same level as the rest of Stross's works, but they were fine. This one, however, got me excited about it all once again.

This is the beginning of a new series even if it's an offshoot of the old. I was right and wrong. :)

Fortunately, I don't really think it's all that necessary to read the previous ones to get this. It just helps if you want to know WHERE it all came from. From feudal world-walkers controlling an epic smuggling empire to the revolution that freed a whole people from THAT to a game of empires where both sides can sneak nukes across world-lines. :)
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,682 reviews344 followers
January 1, 2023
This is the continuation of the Merchant Princes series, a new trilogy. By story-now, the old Princes are pretty much dead or in hiding, since the USA nuked the Gruinmarkt after the Clan's ill-considered decapitation strike on the White House with a stolen nuke. (This isn't really a spoiler, btw, since it's in the prologue.) It's really, really good. And self-contained, though reading the previous books will help understand What Came Before. Plus those were (mostly) good books.

As always, your first step is to read the publisher's summary at the head of this page. Which is a little spoilery for my taste....

Miriam (Beckstein) Burgeson, the protagonist all the way back to "The Family Trade" (Merchant Princes #1), is one of Stross's finest character creations. She's whip-smart, tough, learns fast, thinks on her feet -- and now she's leading multiple Industrial Revolutions in the new, democratic American Commonwealth, built on the remnants of the overturned British-American Empire in Timeline #3. She's Stross's female answer to Heinlein's Competent Man, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compete... Two of her original friends and assistants from the Gruinmarkt, Brill & Olga, continue to play supporting roles here. I was happy to see them back! Stross does really well in creating strong, sexy, believable women characters, going right back to Rachel Mansour in his first two novels (which I'm currently rereading).

And Miriam's long-lost, adopted-out daughter Rita is a major character here, and she's another fine Stross creation. She's manipulated -- dragooned, really -- into joining the US DHS as a spy, and

Miriam and the Commonwealth are in a big hurry, because they know that a paranoid, heavily-armed, trigger-happy superpower is looking for them. Fortunately, there are a lot (an infinite number?) of timelines, mostly uninhabited. Unfortunately, the [alternate] USA is getting better & better at electro-mechanical world-walking. So it's just a matter of time to the showdown. Which is just starting at the end of this book, setting the hook for "Dark State". I'm in for that one, & will be reading it shortly. 4+ stars for this one.

Stay tuned! Two more books to go!

The best review I saw here is by David Harris,
A good, detailed professional review:
And here are Charlie's notes on the book [caution: SPOILERS!]:
"Here's a useful tip when writing epic SF sagas; if you ever need to keep the readers on their toes, and thin out the cast of millions so you can get a handle on the survivors again ... what you really need is a brisk thermonuclear holocaust."
And Stross's later Crib Sheet, which is interesting, but heavy with SPOILERS:
Profile Image for David Harris.
914 reviews29 followers
December 23, 2016
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy via NetGalley

One of my most anticipated books for 2017, Empire Games picks up the story of the world-walking Clan seventeen years on.

In Stross's multi-timeline Merchant Princes sequence (originally published as 6 books, collected as The Bloodline Feud, The Traders' War and The Revolution Trade) we saw the collision between the Clan and modern US society. It's 2020 in the four alternate timelines we saw in the earlier books. Not much is happening in Timeline 4 - subject to 2000 years of nuclear winter - or Timeline 1 - the Gruinmarkt, nuked by the US in 2003.

But lots is going on in a world close to ours, where the Department for Homeland Security is putting together a plan to pursue the Clan. And in that of the New American Commonwealth, where the Clan took refuge - and where Miriam has risen to a high position in the revolutionary government.

The players are ready. The board is laid out. The Empire Games begin.

It's very enjoyable and very readable. The main protagonist, Rita, has a heritage that, as we soon learn, makes her something of an outsider in a fiercely inward looking and distrustful society. Part of that's visible - her skin colour - part of it's less obvious. If you want a glimpse of the atmosphere in this book, look at the cover image above. Security cameras. Cars moving along, with little ID tags. A crosswire... the alternate US has become a panopticon state, everything and everybody surveilled in an effort to spot worldwalker activity. If you apparently don't fit in, you'd better work hard to keep your nose clean and your profile harmless.

Strangely, it's an atmosphere that makes Kurt feel very much at home. But then he's a defector from the former GDR, East Germany, and familiar with the ways of the Stasi. A comparison Stross makes very pointedly: but also one that enables a survivor with a good grasp of old-fashioned tradecraft and a developed geocaching hobby to achieve quite a bit under the radar. What part will Kurt play in this evolving story? We don't know yet, but I think he'll be important... not least because he's Rita's adoptive grandfather.

I quickly warmed to Kurt and Rita: they're both competent, serious players of the Empire Games. Indeed, I found this book as a whole pretty compelling from the start. In mode it closely resembles a technothriller, with a lot of patient exposition of methods, technologies and goals as Rita comes to the attention of the DHS who soon have plans for her. Beneath that, though, there's the portal fantasy setup of the Merchant Princes and behind that legend, something that begins to look very like hard(ish) SF. It's a credit to the writer that he manages to keep these balls - and more - in the air at once, while still spinning a very readable story, even though the first half of this is largely setup. Is that too much? For some authors/ stories perhaps, but not here. It's all fascinating and, as I said, very readable (and this is the first in a trilogy, so not disproportionate).

Above all, I think Stross has captured something about the atmosphere of the times. No, we haven't been attacked by extra-dimensional drug smugglers with a stolen nuke: but the drivers are there, the impetus towards surveillance ("if it only saves one life..." "if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear..."), the converging technologies, the rising distrust of the strange, the stranger, the out-of-place ("if you see something, say something"). We're on a knife edge, and the shows one side on which we could fall.

There's also beautiful, inventive clever and, in places knowing writing, whether references to people vanishing into "night and mist", to the "white heat of a technological revolution", to a "Ministry of Intertemporal Technological Intelligence" (or MITI) directing tech progress in the parallel timeline or a sardonic reference to the American "Heimatschutzministerium" (doesn't that sound chilling?) We get blended Churchill and Picard ("Action This Day" combined with "make it so") and to end with, "And so Kurt Douglas... raised his baton to summon the Wolf Orchestra back to life, to play the cold war blues one last time."

It's a fast, compulsive and intelligent story, at once familiar and alien. Cracking good SF/ Fantasy/ thriller (take your pick) and I'd strongly recommend.

Do you need to have read Merchant Princes (in either incarnation)? It would be helpful but not necessary - the essentials are given here (though those are very enjoyable books so why wouldn't you want to read them?)
Profile Image for RG.
3,092 reviews
February 10, 2018
Ive never read a Stross novel before but I think it may have helped with this series. The Merchant series supposedly links with this within the same world. However I was told this was easily readable by itself. I didnt find this thr case. The first 100 pages were personally a chore. I honestly didnt find any characters interesting and the political schemes/issues themes just were too complex and not inviting with regards to the plot. Im willing to give him another shot but maybe I'll start at a different series.
Profile Image for Margaret Sankey.
Author 9 books208 followers
November 5, 2016
I usually love Stross' work, but this started out with the kind of background material you see in the 5th book of a series--four different timeline, with people able to move between them and all the divergent events, then character profiles of people I didn't particularly care about. By the time I got to the actual story (which should have contained this material rather than expect me to study up and then read it), it was both too complicated and too flat.
Profile Image for Alan.
1,121 reviews111 followers
April 22, 2017
I'd actually fallen away from Charles Stross' Merchant Princes series some volumes ago, but this fresh start (which isn't a reboot, just a sharp change in direction) gave me a good reason to venture back in. This turned out to be a good decision—I kinda devoured this book. Towards the end, especially (about which more later), I had a hard time putting it down even to finish mundane tasks like brushing my teeth.

And don't worry; the brief character sketches and synopsis of the major timelines included at the beginning of Empire Games make it easy to catch up, even if you are, like me, a backslider.

I will provide a generic warning to you, though, just in case you're extremely spoiler-averse: I may very well let slip some of what happened in the previous Merchant Princes books, as part of the history of this novel. If that's an issue for you, please read no further.


Empire Games introduces a new protagonist to the series: Rita Douglas, a 25-year-old woman of Indian descent from Boston, who starts the novel inauspiciously, working at consumer electronics trade shows as a "booth babe" for a motion-capture firm. One day, Rita receives a letter from Hogwarts—no, she pulls a sword from a stone in the woods—no, she gets high score on the right video arcade game... no. Nothing like that. What happens is, Rita gets noticed by the United States' Department of Homeland Security.

Falling under the scrutiny of the DHS is even scarier than you might think. In Rita's version of 2016 (the parallel universe whose inhabitants—those in the know, anyway—call "Timeline Two," in an uncharacteristic display of humility), the DHS has been in charge of defense against so-called "world-walkers" ever since the Clan of Timeline One bombed the White House back in 2003, leaving President Rumsfeld (eep!) in charge of a United States scarred once by 9/11/2001 and then again by 7/16/2003, an America even more uptight and paranoid than our own.

The Clan is no longer a factor, since the U.S. nuked the Gruinmarkt, their headquarters in Timeline One... but there are other timelines—an infinity of them, perhaps—and now the DHS is trying to figure out what to do about Timeline Three, the one in which, despite their best efforts, their crosstime drones keep disappearing.

And, in turn, the people in Timeline Three—the citizens of the New American Commonwealth, that is, who finally managed to overthrow the British monarchy in 2003—are trying to figure out what they can do about a deeply paranoid, world-walking United States that's already been bitten once, while fending off the royalists who remain in power in their own universe, just across the Atlantic.

Not the easiest task in the worlds—and it's made even harder when all of the parties involved have nuclear weapons.

We do discover a lot more, a lot sooner, about the New American Commonwealth than Rita and her DHS handlers do, though—and the infant republic does possess some traits which seem extremely hopeful, especially in contrast with the grim nature of post-7/16 America.

Take this succinct statement (of faith, if you will), from the Commonwealth's Minister of State Communications, about what democracy really involves, in contrast to the monarchists across the Atlantic (and in implicit contrast to our own U.S. of A.):
"{...}those who honor the new social contract: equality before the law, liberty within the law, nobody above the law."
—Erasmus Burgeson, p.107
I doubt that our own aristocrats—anointed by wealth rather than divine right, but no less autocratic for all that—accept this, frankly—especially the final, most critical clause.

Or this observation:
Sometimes she thought that educating the Commonwealth about social psychology and teaching them about cognitive biases, authoritarian personality types, and game theory had done more good than all the STEM research they'd imported.
—Miriam Burgeson, p.216

Much has been made in some circles about the unintentional congruence between the ultra-paranoid U.S. depicted in Empire Games vis-a-vis the version that came stumbling out of the November 2016 election in our timeline... but it must be said that at least the administration in Timeline Two isn't dangerously incompetent. Despite Rita's reservations about the DHS, she does agree to work for them... and despite her youth and relative inexperience at "tradecraft" (a word that recurs frequently throughout Empire Games, and which may in fact be its central motif), Rita Douglas might turn out to be Timeline Two's only hope of avoiding another trans-temporal nuclear exchange.

At any rate... while our sympathies lie with Rita, it's much less clear whether the U.S. of Timeline Two or the Commonwealth of Timeline Three are the good guys. Which is one thing that makes Charles Stross' work so compelling, of course... he goes to the effort of portraying ambiguity, nuance and dramatic tension, rather than relying on the clearcut good-vs.-evil narratives our leaders like to construct (and which, to be fair, we the people usually prefer to consume).


Now, I knew going in that Empire Games was the launchpad for a new series, but even so I would have liked this book a lot more if it had actually had an ending. Instead, what we get here is nothing but the first installment of a serial, ending in not one but several cliffhangers.

Which is good, in a way—always leave 'em wanting more, after all—but I really would have appreciated Charlie's tying off at least a few threads before ending this one mid—
Profile Image for Paul.
2,143 reviews
May 16, 2017
Seventeen years ago the Monarch of the New British Empire was overthrown. Since then power has steadily transferred to the North American Commonwealth. They are on course to defeat the French and return democracy once again. However, the commissioner of the shadowy Ministry of Intertemporal Research and Intelligence tasked with monitoring the movement of people through the paratime links between the parallel worlds has been warning that the Americans are coming. No one believed Miriam Burgeson but as the leader’s health fails, the first American drones appear in the skies.

In another timeline and a different America, Rita has been identified as world-walker, an individual who can switch between the parallel worlds with ease. She is a feisty individual, not completely sure why a shadowy agency wants her but presented with precisely no choice in the matter. First, she must be trained, undergo surgery and be indoctrinated, but the time is cut shorter as the pressure grows on the US to find out what is happening in the world alongside theirs. The perils of first contact between the worlds is heightened as they both have nuclear capability and no one knows if this battle will go white hot once again.

This is a fast-paced mash-up of the spy and military genres set in a near future sci-fi world; or should that be worlds. There is plenty of drama in the plot, with the odd twist that enhances the storyline no end. Like all good sci-fi books, it manages to mess with your head whilst sounding eminently plausible, the various societies that Stross has created do take a while to get your head around too. It leaves many questions unanswered making the ending a little bit scrappy, but as it is the beginning of a series, I don’t mind that so much. Very much looking forward to the next one.
Profile Image for Andrew Hickey.
Author 43 books52 followers
February 6, 2017
Apologies to the few people who follow my blog via its Goodreads syndication, as you will see this review twice...
(This will contain spoilers, not for this book, but for the Merchant Princes series).

Charles Stross is one of those authors whose work I find very variable. Some (for example Glasshouse) is among the best SF written in the last few decades, some (the Laundry Files series) is imaginative but lightweight fun pulp adventure, and some (notably Singularity Sky) I find almost impossible to get into. I read pretty much everything he puts out, though, because when he's good he's *very* good.

For a long time, I didn't read the Merchant Princes series, because it was marketed as an epic fantasy series, and I simply don't do those under any circumstances -- ten million words of collecting plot tokens so that the True Heir to whatever can overcome the Evil Dark Lord (and put in place a new regime with no systemic differences from the old) is just not my kind of thing. I like my books to be about ideas, and epic fantasy is, pretty much without exception, an idea-free zone. So I marked it down mentally as something that was likely to be the not-for-me Stross, and ignored it (something made easier by the fact that half the books weren't released in the UK).

However, about three years ago, Stross announced that the Merchant Princes books were going to be (re)issued in the UK, heavily reworked into three big books from six smaller ones, and the blog posts he wrote about that process made it very clear that the impression given by Tor US' marketing was very, very wrong. The books had been written so that at first they would *appear* to be generic fantasy landfill (mostly in order to get round a contract loophole giving another publisher option rights on Stross' SF work, but not work in other genres), before slowly revealing that they were idea-rich SF books that were also subverting a number of fantasy tropes.
Intrigued, I picked up the first of the reworked books, and read through all of them in about three days flat. The marketing for the series had been utterly misleading -- rather than being in the vein of the Wheel of Time or some equivalent, they were instead much closer to Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon or Baroque Trilogy, or Stross' own Neptune's Brood. It's fundamentally a series about economics, and in particular the economics of developing nations with no exposure to Enlightenment values coming into contact with modern Western states (the Clan in the books is clearly inspired by the gangsterish rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia), and one that uses the SF trope of the multiverse to talk about the conflicts this would cause.

Empire Games is ostensibly the start of a new series, which Stross referred to on his blog by the working title "Merchant Princes: The Next Generation", but in reality it's pretty much a straight continuation of the earlier series, and I'm unsure how much sense it would make to a reader who had not read the earlier series.

The book picks up seventeen years after the last series ended, in an alternate version of the Earth that's similar to our own, except that parallel-world terrorists used a nuclear bomb on the White House in 2003 (the climax of the earlier series), and a short nuclear war between India and Pakistan followed. The world portrayed is surprisingly unchanged by this, other than the US surveillance state being turned up approximately one and a half notches and Donald Rumsfeld having been US President for two terms (now replaced by an unnamed female Democrat President (definitely not Clinton, who was killed in the bombing in this universe)). In fact, I'd argue that it's *too* unchanged -- one of the few things to draw me out of the book was that Facebook, Twitter, and Tesla all exist in Stross' universe in something essentially identical to their current forms, even down to their names.

The action clearly parallels the start of the previous series, with Rita, the biological daughter of the previous series' protagonist Miriam, being picked up by Homeland Security, informed of her genetic potential, and semi-willingly conscripted into spying on behalf of that timeline's USA, investigating the timeline where Miriam now lives (one that was at Victorian levels of development, and under a hereditary dictatorship, before Miriam helped instigate a democratic revolution in the previous series, and which is now rapidly catching up to the late twentieth century).

The book is clearly setting up some very important things, including the infiltration of Homeland Security by various groups (notably both the Mormons and the Scientologists -- and the Mormon element makes me wonder if Stross' plan for the series is at all inspired by Heinlein's If This Goes On..., which touches on a few similar ideas. I'd dismiss this possibility, except that this book is clearly and explicitly intertextual with at least one other classic work of SF, The Man In The High Castle), and there's a lot of background involving Rita's grandfather which I won't spoil, but which is clearly leading to interesting places.

I want to give this book a higher rating than I have -- it's full of exceptionally interesting ideas, and it's more timely than Stross could have imagined when he wrote it. The book was inspired by the Snowden revelations, and a general mistrust of the US surveillance state, but there is a lot in here which resonates strongly with the recent rise of the Trump/Erdogan/Putin/May/Le Pen/Farage Fascist International and the growing realisation that we are in a new Cold War in which our own governments may well not be on the same side as their populations.
But unfortunately, the book is all set-up. It's not really a complete narrative on its own terms, and finishes with all the pieces in place for what promises to be an interesting story, but without the story really having got going. It's the first third of what seems like it'll be a four- or five-star book when it's finished, but it's not a satisfying work in and of itself. I understand the publishing industry realities which mandate this, but that doesn't make the experience itself any less annoying.

My advice is to wait until 2019 (assuming the world lasts that long -- see above re: fascists and cold wars...) and read the whole thing in one go. I'm sure it will work very well then. But as it is, I'd leave it for now.

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Profile Image for Mitchell Friedman.
4,677 reviews175 followers
April 15, 2020
Fun followup to a parallel worlds series. Believable and fast enough paced. I kind of wish it were longer or the next books were already out. I liked Rita and it was good to have new and old blood. But I would have liked to have seen a bit more of the existing characters. There was about the right amount of machinations and action. There is a lot that can be done with this series both big and small - hopefully Stross has a lot more to add.
Profile Image for Lari.
533 reviews
September 21, 2017
I'm debating between 1 and 2 stars on this one...gah, it's a tough call. On the one hand, Kate Reading was the narrator. On the other, ugh, the story.
Ok, well the plot was actually fine. Alternate universes (where, strangely, there are no alternate universe versions of any of the main characters...), and, uh....no, that was actually the only cool thing about the plot. The rest was very political and very boring.
Too many characters. Do I care about some random king trying to get his throne back? Do I care about Rita's cooky spy grandpa? I barely care about Rita herself--she was whiny, and incompetent. She constantly says that she has no choice but to go along with the government people who are using her as their personal world-jumping spy, but come on, she doesn't even argue with them.
So, she was awful. Her mother, Miriam, was slightly better, but her storyline was bogged down with so much political crap that I had no interest in it.
And then the non-ending. Ugh. This isn't a story--it's the beginning of one. Unfortunately, I have no desire to listen to the rest of it. Unless I desperately need a Kate Reading fix. Which, let's face it, will happen eventually, once I've listened to everything she's done...or if she dies. Oh god.

Ok, 1 star. Writing this review made me realize that I hated this book. Stupid Rita.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Julie.
735 reviews11 followers
November 16, 2017
This is a hard one to rate because it’s both the start of a new trilogy and the continuation of a previous series. This book has sci-fi and Cold War elements. I guess it would make some sense without reading the previous Family Trade books but you would be better starting with those first.
Profile Image for Wilde Sky.
Author 16 books34 followers
June 11, 2018
A woman is recruited to move between different dimensions / timeliness.

I couldn't get into this book, I found the characters / dialogue / writing all a bit clunky, but I am probably not the target audience.
Profile Image for Amber.
617 reviews5 followers
October 3, 2021
A spy story where the superpowers spying on each other aren't separated by physical borders, but by dimensions.

As someone who came to this book not having vread the Merchant Princes books, in fact not even knowing they existed until I was already committed to vreading this one, here are my thoughts.

This storyverse setup reminds me a lot of The Long Earth and A Darker Shade of Magic. There are a presumably infinite number of Earths, and only a few people, known as worldwalkers, have the built-in ability to cross between them. Most are empty of people or only have a few primitive hunter-gatherers, but two nearby have advanced human civilizations. What we'll call Datum Earth (Terry Pratchett's terminology – here it's known as Timeline 2) is the only one that has a United States, and as a result of some alt-history stuff that's told in more detail in the Merchant Princes series, it's more of a paranoid right-wing police/surveillance state than the USA you know today. But here, the events of the entire 6-book Merchant Princes series are just a historical backdrop, so if you want that whole story, go vread them first.

Nearby in Timeline 3 is a world that looks sort of familiar... only the American, French, and Russian Revolutions never happened. The great monarchies of Europe were never toppled from within, and democracy never swept the globe. Instead, France invaded England and won, and went on to build a multi-continent empire spanning Europe, Asia and Africa. Meanwhile, the British government-in-exile fled to its small American colony in New England and founded the “New British Empire,” which expanded across the Americas, but remained a monarchy until 2003, when it underwent a revolution to democracy and became the “North American Commonwealth.” In this world, the intellectual fizz of the Enlightenment was dimmed, the Industrial Revolution was stunted, and most technology lags decades, if not more, behind Datum Earth's. Three world wars between the two empires of this world have taken place, some with nukes. The USA hasn't discovered this timeline yet, but it's only a matter of time. The USA has already slagged one alternate timeline, and they could do it again.

Enter our heroine Rita Douglas. Although there's an entire six books of backstory to this world, she's a new character, and she's only obliquely related to the heroine of those six books, Miriam Beckstein. As someone new to the notion of world-walking, she makes a good foil for a lot of this stuff to be explained and is reasonably likable. But the story still felt somewhat impersonal for a while because there are characters like Miriam who were introduced in prior books, and you don't get a new introduction to them, just an infodump in the front about who they are and how they got here. That was okay because once the action picked up, it didn't matter. Rita is hauled in by the Department of Homeland Security because they're interested in her genetic relationship to Miriam Beckstein. Shenanigans ensue, and Rita goes from being a pawn in one political game to a pawn in another. Can Rita help divert a trans-dimensional nuclear war between two superpowers who are both hair-triggered and armed to the teeth with nuclear arsenals?

We'll discover there's also a Timeline 4 where . And not much later, there will be even more mindfuckery when we discover another timeline where .

This story was fairly entertaining, but it makes me want an alternate-dimension story where the modern USA is even more of an anomaly – one where there are 100 Earths in which the British established colonies in North America, 50 where the revolution occurred, 10 where the revolution succeeded, but only one in which the USA survived its infancy and became the world power that it is today.

Can you vread it without first vreading the whole Merchant Princes series? I say yes, as long as you accept the idea that you will have major events of that story spoiled, and that you will be largely ignorant of events that are common knowledge to the characters and not discussed in any great detail after the opening infodump. I bet you could even vread this series first and then vread the Merchant Princes as a prequel.

Did I like it well enough to keep vreading the series? Probably yes, but not so much that I'm going to seek out Book 2 immediately. This is true even though the end of Book 1 leaves things quite unresolved.

Does it pass the Bechdel test? Yes.
Profile Image for Stuart.
157 reviews33 followers
April 28, 2018
I must admit this book disappointed me. The early part of the novel hinted strongly that this would develop into a thriller. As far as I am concerned it never became full blown thriller. It was fairly well written but to many scenes simply fell flat. On the plus side the idea of conflicts between different time lines worked fairly well. In addition, without creating a plot spoiler, the resolution to the novel is convincing.
Profile Image for Paul Sherman.
1 review2 followers
February 4, 2017
Great continuation of the Merchant Princes universe

After plowing through the Merchant Princes series last year, I was worried that this fictional universe was played out, or just plain broken, overtaken by reality. I was wrong. Stross has rescued it from irrelevance with the neat trick of making "our" timeline just one of the many divergent alternate universes, which has the effect of breathing new life into this series and opening up an infinitude of possibilities. Most important, it's just a calm entertaining read. If you're a Merchant Princes fan, don't worry. Stross has your back.
Profile Image for Clyde.
815 reviews54 followers
April 16, 2020
I can only give this book three stars because the story just stops in the middle. It is interesting and well written, but it leaves things very unresolved. Not exactly a cliffhanger, but still unsatisfying.

On further consideration, I'm upping my rating to four stars because I reckon it was the publisher not Stross that broke the story at an unfortunate point.
Profile Image for Rob.
85 reviews13 followers
November 10, 2022
I dithered between 4 or 3 stars for this but I decided that my problems were my own for not starting at the very beginning of this whole series of series.
I found it slow and unconvincing to begin with (not something I thought I would ever say about Stross) but it soon became more and more interesting and intriguing. Certainly it has me hooked enough to follow the series further. 3.5
Profile Image for Thomas.
2,066 reviews
August 27, 2017
This new addition to the Merchant Prince series is very welcome. It combines the satirical edge of the Laundry series with a less steam-punky story line than the earlier books in the series. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy,
Profile Image for Chris.
2,862 reviews204 followers
February 22, 2019
The first two books of a trilogy set in the Merchant Princes' universe sustain the intrigue and suspense of the original series and contain many familiar faces. Now, here's hoping I can remember all of the details long enough for the final book to be released...
Profile Image for Oleg X.
80 reviews22 followers
April 10, 2017
Оригинал: https://olegeightnine.wordpress.com/2...

Empire Games и одноименный цикл, с которого эта книга начинается, являются продолжением предыдущего цикла Чарльза Стросса «The Merchant Princes» про альтернативные таймлайны и конфликты между ними. Там обладатели врожденной способности путешествовать между мирами при помощи доступа к «нашей» Земле обогащались и укрепляли свою власть в их родной менее развитой реальности, но со временем их активность привлекла внимание Соединенных Штатов, которые не одобрили контрабанду и торговлю наркотиками. Чем это закончилось, в начале Empire Games объясняет очень подробный рекап, что, может, неидеальный способ запускать новую серию, но как минимум читатель быстро оказывается в курсе событий, потому что это все-таки очень хороший рекап.

EG начинается в 2020-м году, где с одной стороны — в США, после предыдущий событий превратившихся в антиутопию с тотальной слежкой и паранойей про «мироходцев», а с другой — в альтернативной Северной Америке, которая только вырвалась из-под контроля Британской Империи и пытается создать преимущество благодаря технологии из другого мира. Together they fight crime. И, естественно, они движутся навстречу друг другу, и полетят искры, и никто никого не хочет взрывать, но…

У меня, возможно, слегка странные отношения с творчеством Стросса, потому что все его книги, которые я читал, не совсем работают для меня по очень конкретным причинам, но я все равно регулярно к нему возвращаюсь. В Empire Games, например, очень немного происходит: полкниги главную героиню правительственное агентство готовит к роли межвселенского шпиона, в другом таймлайне мучительно неспешно расставляют фигуры (настолько неспешно, что пока в основном сюжете август, в тамошних главах еще май), потом они встречаются, и книга заканчивается. То есть, роман написан именно как первая треть большой истории, а не как самостоятельная часть трилогии, и это, может, не недостаток, но заметно становится слишком поздно, и это все равно очень неспешная завязка. И из-за выбранного автором подхода к повествованию сейчас сложно решить, как оценивать решения, выглядящие сомнительными: например, д��душка главной героини, бывший секретный агент из Восточной Германии, стартует в виде второстепенного персонажа, но постепенно начинает демонстрировать все большую вовлеченность в события, и, по-моему, этих слоев у него слишком много, и они раскрываются слишком резко, но, может, через год или два все станет понятно и логично, КТО ВООБЩЕ ЗНАЕТ. И такое происходит во многих аспектах книги.

(Книги, которые издаются тремя отдельными кусками, должны оцениваться как три отдельные куска. Таков закон.)

Но я раз за разом берусь за новые книги Стросса, почти по тем же причинам, почему у меня не удалось пока состыковаться с Нилом Стивенсоном или Кимом Стэнли Робинсоном (во-первых, книги Стросса тоньше). У него фантастический талант описывать миры, технологии и большие ситуации, который могу описать только словом «сияюще». От дилогии Halting State я гораздо лучше помню увешанную камерами независимую Шотландию в гугло-очках и каннибаллов, которые ели клонированное с себя мясо, чем расследуемые убийства (зато развешивание полицейскими аспектов расследования на AR-доску там прямо будоражит кровь). The Neptune’s Brood — классная книга про космическую робо-экономику, космическую робо-религию, космических роботов-пиратов/летучих мышей и роботов-осьминогов-коммунистов, а не про ее сюжет. Тут то же самое: я так увлекся чтением описаний политических тонкостей ситуаций в обеих таймлайнах, технических подробностей межвселенского шпионажа и обороны от него (и, что важно, в этой книге Стросс не склонен к инфо-дампам, информация в основном предоставляется ненавязчиво во время событий), что только на середине понял, как мало история сдвинулась с места несмотря на количество случившихся событий. Здесь я, скорее всего, в первую очередь запомню главу про то, как агент менее развитого таймлайна движется по Нью-Йорку с постепенным объяснением продуманности операции, ее тактик и технологий, взаимодействия с контрмерами противника и так далее.

Я в целом получил довольно много удовольствия от Empire Games, это очень крепко сделанная история о альтернативных таймлайнах не в привычном стиле Sliders или Doctor Who, а через линзу Тома Клэнси и Stargate SG-1. То, что к��ига — первая треть большой истории и обрывается довольно резким клиффхангером, не очень хорошо, и если вы чувствительны к таким вещам, то стоит подождать пару лет до завершения цикла.
Profile Image for Tani.
1,123 reviews22 followers
October 20, 2017
I picked this up because I was in the mood for some science fiction, and because, while I had enjoyed the one other Stross novel I had read, I wanted to see more of his range. My other Stross novel was the first Laundry Files book, which I would consider urban fantasy with horror elements, so I thought his take on science fiction might be interesting. Unfortunately, I wasn't overly impressed, and I think part of that is a gap between my expectations and reality. I was expecting big concept science fiction with lots of play on the alternate timelines and worldhopping. I kind of got that, but I got it in the form a near-future setting that is remarkably similar to our own, and a spy novel to boot. I'm not sure that I would have put it so high on my priority list if I had known what I was getting myself into.

I did end up liking the novel, but I'm torn on whether I will want to continue with the series. On the one hand, the ending really sets up the next novel for some interesting material. However, I had a bit of a slog to get there. What if the next book ends up being a slog for me as well? It's a question that I'll have to consider more thoroughly once the second book is actually available.

The best part of this book for me was the main character, Rita. I really liked her a lot. I sympathized with her complete bewilderment at the situation that she finds herself in, and her feeling of entrapment. I was with her in not really trusting any of the people who surrounded her. If I hadn't liked her so much, I might not have finished the book. She was the main bright point for me, and the reason that it's getting 3 stars.

The biggest disappointment was the alternate worlds. I felt like they were too alike. Although they had divergent timelines and some major differences, both felt the same to me. Both were mired in politics and corruption and I didn't feel like either side had any kind of moral high ground or likability. Neither really gave me anything to root for, so I ended the book feeling like both sides were pretty much the same.

I also didn't really care for the emphasis on Miriam's point of view during the middle of the book. It didn't really create any sympathy for her with me, and it honestly bored me. I have not read the prior series, so that was probably part of my problem with her. Perhaps if I knew her from the other books, I would have had more interest in her. As it was, I didn't enjoy my time with her.

The spy aspect of the story was interesting, but felt poorly done. Not on the part of Stross, but on the part of the characters. DHS is pretty incompetent, as far as I can see, and their incompetence caused some real danger for Rita. It kind of left me rooting for a character who's been left with very little agency and few good options, which made me a bit frustrated as I read.

I listened to the audio book of this, and Kate Reading did a very good job indeed. However, I don't think that the book itself was easy to convert to this format. There would be fairly long stretches of 'transcripts,' which are nothing but awkward in audio format. I definitely think I would choose to read the sequel myself, should I decide to do so.
Profile Image for Marco.
69 reviews8 followers
March 25, 2018
Should probably be 4.5 stars, tbh.
On the plus side, this is one of the best books written by Charles Stross. So great ideas, intelligence and wit.
On the minus side, it is still a book written by Charles Stross. So, it's written by a squirrel with ADHD and much more interest in science than in human beings.
So, we have an incredibly generic character which is supposed to be independent and badass (and lesbian and millenial, to differentiate her from the equally uninteresting heroine of the previous saga), and makes absolutely no choice and has no agency along the whole story. When the plot is starting to take off, the book suddenly ends, without even pretending to have a climax.
That said - the story about the two timelines risking a nuclear conflict is simply briliant. As usual, Stross is great at taking a strange, original idea and considering it with intelligence. Both timelines are interesting in themeselves: in one, we have a dark future for the US, turned into a police state by the events of the previous saga. In the other, a recent, revolutionary Commonwealth which is undergoing a forced, planned second industrial revolution thanks to refugee world-walkers who can use the knowledge from the US line. Just the forced modernization of the Commonwealth, which had sadly little screen time, would have made for a book I'd have loved to read.
Most of the story is a spy story about the US learning how to send spies to a different timeline, and the risk of a cold (or not so cold) interworld nuclear war. It's well written and easy to follow.
So, basically, if you can enjoy a well thought scenario of fictional politics, this book is great. If you expect a story which has characters or a reasonable amount of plot, err, you should probably just avoid this author.
963 reviews10 followers
January 31, 2019
We're up to the year 2020, people are aging (of course) and we're moving into a whole new time. Miriam and Erasmus have married and are both ministers in the revolutionary government, Miriam's daughter Rita (born while Miriam was in pre med) is now 25 years old and not a world walker because her father was a Pakistani med student and therefore she has only the recessive gene from her mother.
The new characters are interesting and quite different from what might be expected. Rita's adoptive grandfather is a sleeper agent for the East German Stasi, which doesn't exist any more. We don't usually think positively about Stasi agents, but one of the themes pushed by Stross is the need for people to assess individual people rather than judge groups. Using the Stasi is an extreme example, though.
We're following post revolutionary development in the New American republic. I hoped they would cut down on climate effects but because they were using more fossil fuels early the effects are still coming but the community is shifting to electricity and (oh dear!) atomic energy. The US has gone to more gasoline because they have the uninhabited time level to drill in for oil and to use as a dump. (Why do we take the easy answer all the time?)
What is particularly interesting is watching Stross' handling of the handing on of power after the first First Man is taken ill. This is the point where revolutions tend to fall apart. So what are we going to find in Dark State? and now we have to wait until November for Invisible Sun, the last (?) book in the trilogy.
Profile Image for Cale.
3,658 reviews24 followers
August 3, 2017
While technically a new series in the Merchant Princes series, this book manages to touch upon a lot of the loose threads from the previous series, and puts them to good use. That being said, this book stands alone pretty well, borrowing the Laundry Files' propensity for spooks and bureaucracy and putting it to different use. Miriam's daughter is the first option for the US to infiltrate another time line that seems dangerous. The book focuses mainly on Rita's training, embellishing it with glimpses at where Miriam and co. have gotten to after 17 years. For as much as the book focuses on bureaucracy and covert affairs, it manages to be a compelling read as it unravels layers upon layers. There's no major action sequences, but I didn't miss them. This is definitely the start of a larger saga, and it makes a strong opening salvo.
Profile Image for Sebastian.
Author 8 books29 followers
September 6, 2021
I put off starting this series for a long while because the ending of the prior Merchant Princes books put me off the franchise altogether, but as I had a quick trilogy-shaped window in my reading schedule, I decided to give it a shot. I am delighted to see that we are now as far from portal fantasy as can be, and are far more deeply into spi-fi territory, mixing cold-war tradecraft with a burgeoning cyberpunk dystopia and a dash of wild speculation. The story and style are standard Stross, so fans will love it, while detractors will find nothing to change their mind in this unsurprisingly quick read.
34 reviews1 follower
January 7, 2020
Bugger, I shouldn't buy books randomly. I now know this is book 7 in the Merchant Prince series (and hope I haven't spoiled anything except the big picture). Anyway, very enjoyable and I found he is able to write a better female protagonist in this one than in the Laundry series (which I nevertheless still enjoyed immensely).

FWIW, Empire Games has a similar familiar good pacing and devlopment. I never had the feeling of yelling "get on with it".

I will now go back and read 1-6 then this one before progressing. (BTW I don't write synopses)
Profile Image for Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk.
816 reviews106 followers
June 22, 2019
I don't know how Charles Stross manages to do it but he never lets me down. Every book of his that I've read is full of originality and lip-smacking verve. This particular novel deals with alternate universes or, more precisely, Earths which are potentially at war with each other. It doesn't help that both "antagonists" in the two key parallel Earths have nuclear capability and the skills to cross into their neighbours.
I enjoyed it, could hardly put it down. And there's a series! Oh goody!!
Profile Image for Antonio Diaz.
322 reviews62 followers
August 2, 2017
Primera entrega de una nueva serie de Stross y mi primera experiencia con el autor. El worldbuilding me ha volado la tapa de los sesos. Un tanto introductoria y un leve exceso de infodumps pero estoy enganchado.

Tras charlar con @odo, coincido en que da la impresión de que es la secuela de la saga The Merchant Princes.
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