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Empire Games #3

Invisible Sun

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The alternate timelines of Charles Stross' Empire Games trilogy have never been so entangled than in Invisible Sun ―the techno-thriller follow up to Dark State ―as stakes escalate in a conflict that could spell extermination for humanity across all known timelines.

An inter-timeline coup d'état gone awry.

A renegade British monarch on the run through the streets of Berlin.

And robotic alien invaders from a distant timeline flood through a wormhole, wreaking havoc in the USA.

Can disgraced worldwalker Rita and her intertemporal extraordaire agent of a mother neutralize the livewire contention before it's too late?

400 pages, Hardcover

First published September 28, 2021

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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 115 reviews
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,100 followers
August 16, 2021
The good and the bad.

First of all, ya'll should know I'm a big Stross fanboy -- and have been ever since Accelerando and hardly anything he's ever written since then has come off as anything less than extremely interesting. I didn't even have a problem with the Eschaton's get out of jail free card.

However... this book, with some admittedly awesome ideas interspersed throughout, didn't land the way it should have. Even Charlie called it in the apology at the end of the novel. It was plagued by 2020 and the tragic death of his editor and probably a bit of burnout on a massive multiple-timeline alternate history geopolitical nightmare of a tale that was originally planned to be TWO more books rather than this rushed, smaller, single capstone.

Don't get me wrong here. I loved these spin-offs of the Merchant Princes with its Cold War sensibilities and escalations between whole earth timelines where history came out VERY different. The idea behind it and the execution has been pretty awesome. Better than the Merchant Princes originals, even. Machiavellian politics and hardliner misunderstandings about what a NUKE happens to be is a very precious thing to me. Think Renaissance Italy coming up against American Politics with a whole bunch of cold war spies hopping between timelines and you've got a good picture.

So what happened?

This one felt rushed. When we're heading up to not just 2, but alt worlds 3, 4, and 5, with a world blasted to hell in one, and we're dealing with joint ventures to MARS, when there are succession issues in some and all-out military coups in another and things get very, very hairy indeed, I found myself feeling a bit short-changed on the character front. The basic plots were great, the tech and the drill-down of the complications are FANTASTIC and even mind-blowing, in perfect Stross style -- but I gradually found out, much to my chagrin, that I wanted to savor it. I would have been much happier with spending a lot more time with the characters, being reintroduced in a more fluid way, let them find new loves, obsessions, etc, before throwing them into the soup.

In other words, I think I would have preferred two books instead of one short capstone. I think Stross's normally excellent quality got strangled by a time deadline and/or the desire to just FINISH it and move on. I can't blame him, but I can feel pity for the series.

This is NOT a bad book, mind you. I'm being harsh because I've loved the others and just wanted to see it put to bed with all the accolades it should have deserved. I mean, seriously, this is some funky-cool s**t going on. I just wanted more for it.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,682 reviews344 followers
January 2, 2023
Absolutely first-rate novel. Right up with his best. Far, far better than the mediocre #2, "Dark State." Suffers a bit from its long gestation, but once it gets into high gear.... WHAM. Literally MEGATONS of fun!
Don't start here, if you are new to the series. Start at EMPIRE GAMES (#1), consider skipping the so-so middle book -- and you will be ready for this one. High Concept and High Action Stross at his best! 4.7 stars.

I read Invisible Sun as Stross's tribute to the late physicist Freeman Dyson, who worked on the first attempt at the ORION spaceship in the 1960s, for General Atomic.* Dyson was one of the premier Space Cadets among serious physicists of the 20th (and early 21st) century. And hands down the best scientist-writer during that period. If you've missed his essay collections, start with "Disturbing the Universe," which amounts to a memoir. Well, they all are, but that one is his first & best, IMO. I have a copy OH for reread. The novel's title is another nod to Dyson, I'm almost certain: a Dyson Sphere would render its sun invisible to visible-light astronomers. And Stross has Forerunners vs a Deeply Advanced hive-machine civilization that is VERY aggressive and VERY scary.... To say more would spoil it for you. One of the coolest parts of the book!

Here's the author's preview for what he says is definitely the last Merchant Princes book,#9 in a series he's been writing since 2001:
"During the process of writing an adventure yarn slightly longer than War and Peace, I realized that I had become obsessed with the economic consequences of time-line hopping. If world walkers can carry small goods and letters between parallel universes where history has taken wildly divergent courses, they can take advantage of differences in technological development to make money. But what are the limits? How far can a small group of people push a society? Making themselves individually or collectively rich is a no-brainer, but can a couple of thousand people from a pre-industrial society leverage access to a world similar to our own to catalyse modernization? And if so, what are the consequences?"
More: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-...
*There's a good book on the ORION project, by his son George.
Profile Image for Alan.
1,121 reviews111 followers
November 26, 2021
Oops, I did it again.

I seem to have recently made a habit (accidentally, I swear!) of skipping entries in series by various authors—I did this with Tim Powers' Forced Perspectives, as well as with Richard Kadrey's King Bullet, the finale to his Sandman Slim series.

To some extent, I can blame the vagaries of my local library—it's rare for me to see all three books of a trilogy together on the shelf, even when the whole thing's been out for awhile. But really it's my own fault, for not keeping better track of my to-read list (aka "Mount TBR").

And now here I've done it again, with Invisible Sun, the rousing finale to Charles Stross' Merchant Princes series. I did read Empire Games in 2017, and I do have Dark State, the middle volume, on my to-read list... but when I saw Invisible Sun on the shelf, I just had to pick it up.

Maybe that was the right call; my Goodreads friend Peter T. recently suggested that Dark State was kinda... forgettable anyway.

I was almost lost at the beginning of Invisible Sun, though, despite fourteen pages or so of timeline data, "Main Character Profiles" and a "Principal Cast List"—after that background information, Stross indulges in his propensity for high-speed, high-density information transfer in a way I don't think he's managed since Accelerando. But he makes it work—even if you (like me) have only been intermittently dipping into this series, you won't be lost if you pay attention.

But for heaven's sake, don't start here.


I really did like this conclusion to Stross' nine-book series, despite occasionally feeling rushed. One thing I really liked: although he leaves it until rather late in the book, Stross succinctly describes something very close to what I think has to be the way parallel universes must work, if they exist at all:
Every quantum event that produces divergent outcomes that a human-scale observer perceives forces a split between time lines. But most such divergences are insignificant: and they ultimately re-merge. It doesn't matter how a butterfly flaps its wings if nobody sees it, and eventually the bug collector goes home and memories fade and only the significant paths remain detectable.
This explains not just Stross' individual concept of the multiverse, but the primary narrative necessity of alternative timelines in general—why it is that the alternities we can get to have any visible, interesting differences from our own universe at all.

The possibilities aren't infinite after all—they clump up.


I haven't talked about the specifics of plot or character here, and that's intentional—Invisible Sun is the end of a road that started many volumes and hundreds of thousands of words ago, after all, and pretty much any details I share would be spoilers for someone. Just know that the people you liked (and the ones you loved to hate) in Empire Games are, for the most part, back in Invisible Sun, and—pretty much—they all get exactly what they deserve.

More or less.

Oh, and there are aliens. Mustn't forget the aliens... because they sure as hell won't forget us.
28 reviews24 followers
July 28, 2021
I can’t blame Charles Stross for thinking Invisible Sun must be cursed. The capper to a series originating almost twenty years ago, it’s been serially delayed by family tragedies, the loss of a longtime editor, burnout, and COVID. It'd have been understandable if it’d never been finished.

Unfortunately, reading Invisible Sun is a bit like opening the FedEx™ Tom Hanks delivers at the end of Cast Away; I’m grateful it’s arrived, and honoured by the herculean effort behind this small parcel. But the contents are past their best-by, banged up by the journey, and a bit small next to the saga of their arrival. 2.5 stars, rounded up because it'd be churlish not to.


To be clear, Invisible Sun isn’t a ~bad~ novel: it understands its genre, stays reasonably true to its characters, and delivers at least two spectacular para-time set pieces on the way to wrapping up a sprawling series plot. But much is sacrificed to resolve plot threads. Baroque-but-interesting frills like Mormon-Adventist rivalry in US intel services or the view from Imperial France are sidelined ruthlessly, and a War-of-the-Worlds-esque omniscient narrator has to intrude regularly with info-dumps. Prominent issues from past books — Rita’s ultimate loyalties, Elizabeth’s willingness to actually defect, the Americans’ choice between paranoid fanaticism and realpolitik pragmatism — are mentioned briefly and collapsed quickly.

This’d be fine if the novel was as propulsive as its lovingly-described bombers and subs and spacecraft, but it’s a bumpy, occasionally baggy ride. The book starts with inevitable reminders about the characters, their relationship to each other, last book’s plot, etc. etc., but Stross feels the need to jog our memory almost Every. Single. Time. we shift perspective right to the bitter end. So yes, by page 400 I’m definitely solid on the fact Miriam is Rita’s birth mother and Juggernaut is a copy of Project ORION, I’ve got it, no need to awkwardly wedge that info into expository dialogue once more, but it’ll happen at least twice again before the book is over. Which is, uh, some time yet.

The foreshadowing can be as frustrating as the recaps. A few times we’re given a triumphant swell of plot music as the Wolf Orchestra decisively swings into action and fine details of Elizabeth’s phone determine her future destiny, except they…don’t? The book feels littered with these little leftovers from earlier drafts, emotional dead links that don’t click through. And yet our omniscient narrator also lays out how the baddies can be beaten in such a way any experienced reader can immediately and comprehensively guess the end. Yes, Chehov’s nukes over the fireplace are totally going off in the third act, we might guess how, but I’d rather not be *told* in advance.

There are plenty of other gripes to be had, from a frankly clichéd choice of baddies (whose motivations to Kill All Humans is at odds with a civilizational MO that seemingly doesn’t care about terrestrial planets? At all? Shouldn’t they be terrorising Jupiter instead? Asking for a friend?), to timeline numbering glitches to a character whose hair changes from blue to green to blue over three scenes without comment.

All these nitpicks sap momentum, but Invisible Sun is hampered even more by its curious untimeliness. Some of this is plain bad luck; in 2017 you could still get mileage out of fears of a hyper-competent paranoid infosec state, but Trump and Brexit happened and those nightmares just don’t land the way they used to. Yet at its heart this is really a novel about the Cold War, with evocations of grand para-time strategy, nuclear everything, and (many, many) comparisons to the Eastern Bloc. Which is fine, you can write about the Cold War and the Bush years, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t always feel relevant. While our parcel was struggling to be delivered, the world moved on.
Profile Image for Eric.
759 reviews7 followers
May 17, 2023
Delayed for reasons the author explained in his blog and in the postscript to this book. This was worth the wait, though.
Edit: have read twice now, I think, and the decision to paginate is a nice excuse to reread soon ;) (5-16-23)
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,952 reviews1,295 followers
December 9, 2021
Oops, I am only now realizing as I sit down to write this review that I read Empire Games , the first book in this trilogy, but not Dark State, the second. When Invisible Sun came out earlier this year, I was just so excited to get back to this story that I forgot to check if I was caught up! Turns out I was not. So, if you are wondering if you can read this book without reading the one prior … the answer is yes.

Charles Stross brings this trilogy to a conclusion with a bang—several hundred nuclear bangs, I should say. In one timeline very similar to ours, NSA spooks hunt a refugee from another timeline. She’s a princess, or at least could be, and politically valuable to all the players in this game. Meanwhile, in her home timeline, Miriam Burgeson (née Beckstein) and her daughter, Rita Douglas, do a delicate dance during the mourning period for the First Man. If either steps awry, it might possibly spell the end of this experiment in democracy. Finally, in a timeline where humanity is extinct but a mysterious Dome encloses a gate to yet another parallel timeline, the invasion of a swarm of machine intelligences threatens to spill out across all the timelines we might care about.

My experience with Stross has rather mirrored the trajectory of his own writing career. I used to be very much into far-future, posthuman science fiction that posited nigh-omnipotent artificial intelligences and such. After I had my fill of such stories, however, I started to get bored. I dip my toe back into that subgenre here and there, but I have also appreciated Stross’s urban fantasy and near-future science fiction, including this series and its prequel series. I was a little hard on Empire Games, and honestly, Invisible Sun didn’t offer up anything else new in comparison.

But it got the job done, if you know what I mean.

There’s just something very enchanting about how Stross writes, something that makes me want to keep reading and devour the book as quickly as possible. Yes, the book lacks the focus of a clear protagonist—who should I be rooting for, everyone? Yes, the book is about 78% exposition—but really, what do you expect from Stross at this point? I’m not here for an engrossing story so much as for this incredible thought experiment: what if some people could travel to parallel universes, and what if in the deep past some of their ancestors came into conflict with an unfathomable intelligence that then also acquired that ability? It’s heady stuff.

Something I did enjoy a lot more about Invisible Sun, though, was the commentary on the fragility of democracy. The republic for which Miriam fights is about a decade old and it is already experiencing its first succession crisis. Thanks to the omniscient narrator, we get to see things from all sides—including the Commonwealth Guard leaders who plot the coup and install a junta. I appreciate how Stross draws parallels with events in the twentieth century for which I wasn’t alive, and how he demonstrates that even when one has the best of intentions, sometimes coincidences or missed connections mean that everything goes pear shaped.

This is why I’m not quite willing to stop reading Stross’s books despite the fact that sometimes the plots themselves are a little thin on the ground: he still makes me think. Invisible Sun offers up commentary on democracy, surveillance states, statecraft, spycraft, and of course, the importance of family. It has plenty of weaknesses yet also quite a few strengths, and I can’t deny that I devoured the book, so I can’t complain too heavily about it!

In the end, this won’t win you over if you are new to this series. The original trilogy really holds up better in my mind. I appreciate how Stross has indicated that this story is done, but that he might revisit this multiverse one day. I think that’s a good call. For now, if you are curious about these books, go pick up The Bloodline Feud and prepare to be very entertained.

Originally posted on Kara.Reviews, where you can easily browse all my reviews and subscribe to my newsletter.

Creative Commons BY-NC License
Profile Image for L.
884 reviews31 followers
October 27, 2021
Mostly satisfying conclusion to a long series

Invisible Sun is the final book in Charles Stross's Empire Games trilogy, which is the final trilogy in Stross's Merchant Princes Universe trilogy of trilogies. It is really the final book, not just the latest one to come out. Stross assures us that the series ends here -- that while he may conceivably set another book in the Merchant Princes Universe, this particular story, the story of Miriam Beckstein and her extended family, ends here.

It's a big story, spanning the entire Earth in multiple different universes. The principle gimmick is that some of the characters, including Miriam, are "World-Walkers" -- they can move between universes. The story devolves into a big tangle of secret-agent stuff and military complications and palace intrigue. As secret agent stuff and palace intrigue go, it's a pretty complicated story, and pretty interesting. Stross manages in this final book to tie up most of the plot lines in a neat bow and bring the story to something resembling a neat end.

I entitled this review "Mostly satisfying conclusion to a long series". I am a big Stross fan. So why "mostly"? Well, I was less than thrilled with the book in two regards.

First, it is all deadly serious, and humorless. That's true pretty much throughout the Merchant Princes Universe Series. This is a contrast with Stross's other major series, The Laundry Files, which are always playful and often quite funny. I assume this is some sort of conscious choice on Stross's part. It's worth pointing out here the tragic circumstances of the writing of Invisible Sun. While he was writing it, four people close to Stross died -- both his parents, a close friend, and the editor with whom he was working on the book, who was also a friend. Then Covid-19 struck. So, a somber tone is hardly surprising.

My second issue was with the feeling of authenticity. Stross seems to see himself as an expert in military matters, in government burocracies, and in espionage. Maybe he is, but there is nothing in his biography that would suggest it. Furthermore, the jargon-filled dialogs of the officers in the books don't feel real to me. (This is in contrast to his discussions of information technology, which he does have a background in.)

Now, there are at least two possibilities here: (1) Stross doesn't know what he's talking about, or (2) Stross knows what he's talking about, but does a poor job of presenting in in a way that conveys authenticity. An argument in favor of possibility (1) is his discussion of the genetics and biology of the world-walker trait. Genetics and biology are subjects I know quite a bit about, and nothing in Stross's discussion suggests to me that he has more than the most superficial understanding of biology. For instance, he writes the following, "the Hive bioweapon had damaged the jaunt trait badly enough to render it recessive and lethal if over-used, but not to destroy it." The "Hive bioweapon" referred to here is a prion -- why I don't know, maybe it was in the news when Stross began writing. Anyway, the sentence quoted could not have been written by someone who has a good understanding of prions or genetics.

However, I think the important point here is that it's Stross's job as a novelist to make me believe the story. Whether or not he really does know about the subjects he writes of, it was his job to make them feel real. And what he managed to convey was mostly the feeling "I am trying very hard. Too hard." So that was disappointing.
Profile Image for Matthew.
65 reviews5 followers
October 12, 2021
I've got every sympathy for the rough shit Charlie went through writing this.

I enjoyed it immensely and wish it was twice as long.
Profile Image for Colin Forbes.
428 reviews13 followers
November 15, 2021
A solid, if not quite stellar, conclusion to this epic parallel earths sci-fi series.

Stross manages to pull together the disparate plot threads put in motion in the preceding volumes and more or less tie them all off with a neat bow, which is no mean feat given the complexity of the story.

If anything, although this is a longer book than the two that came before, it felt a bit rushed. I feel that most of the storylines and character moments could have had more time, whether that meant a longer book or even having two volumes?

Don't want to be too negative, though. It was an enjoyable read and the series as a whole has been a very satisfying experience. Long may Charles Stross continue to flex his big intellect and story telling skills!

Nitpickery that no-one will ever read hidden below this spoiler tag.
Profile Image for Deborah Ross.
Author 86 books86 followers
May 2, 2022
I've loved just about everything Charles Stross has written, from The Laundry Files to The Merchant Princes to the Singularity books. I'd read the first two books of The Merchant Princes and thought that would give me enough background, with a little catching up, to enjoy Invisible Sun. Alas, I was wrong. There's simply too much backstory in the previous two Empire Games novels. Finally, I set it aside to read once I've caught up.

In some series, each book stands pretty well on its own, with a little backstory here and there inserted in the book or a little familiarity with the world. This isn't true for Invisible Sun. Be sure you're all caught up with The Merchant Princes and the previous Empire Games novels before diving in.
136 reviews50 followers
November 6, 2021
Hard to review because so many elements of it (long asides on history economics etc, political sensibilities that are somehow simultaneously civil libertarian and tankie-adjacent, &c.) seem specifically targeted towards my own derangements. A bit Saves The Cat-y, but whatever; plot is the least interesting aspect of fiction and it’s not like I demand that font choices be original either.
Profile Image for Hannah Bryan.
46 reviews
August 20, 2023
I was not expecting the escalation in stakes and schemes in this final book of the trilogy. Gripping and definitely political.
Profile Image for Natasha Hurley-Walker.
533 reviews22 followers
November 16, 2021
Here follows a spoiler-laced review for the whole trilogy.

963 reviews10 followers
May 18, 2022
I think I'm glad to finish this series of parallel universe based stories. There was always the difficulty of keeping straight the characters of three time lines and two (now three) continents. It became even more difficult as people moved from one time line to another and people became spies and counter spies. I could have classified this as a spy novel, actually, but the fantasy/science fiction will do well enough.
In a couple of previous books I was sure that either the Americans or the people of the Gruinmarkt would bomb the earth, leaving it a burnt out radioactive hulk. We manage to get well into this book without it happening.
The First Man has died and there was to be a huge military parade as part of three days of memorials and ceremonies. Everyone dressed in black and seated in stands along the route; it was to be very impressive so that the meeting of he council to choose a new First Man would be able to present their choice to the universally accepting citizenry. The high point was to be the overflight by the Juggernaut, the Commonwealth's space ship, launched in another time line to save the populated earths from the radiation produced by the explosions. It would certainly have impressed if everyone hadn't been concentrating on the mutiny by the national guard. Important representatives were seized and imprisoned while the various groups try to figure out what has happened.
The heir to the English throne, Princess Elizabeth, decided that she could have a happier life if she defected to the Commonwealth and took citizenship there. That doesn't look like working well.
People don't believe Juggernaut is real and it's hard to prove because they can't land the thing.
All the spies and their handlers, including the Wolf Orchestra, have to be sorted out and disposed of appropriately.
Mr. Stross took this all in hand, juggled all the time lines, each with their own characters, and including a horrific invasion of the Hive, a type of sentient mechanistic community from ... where? and came up with a pretty acceptable ending which even has a touch of hope for cooperation between the time lines.
I particularly liked the way he created a way for the Commonwealth to develop space travel in the short development time they had and the fact that they could destroy their whole earth if things went wrong. We visit the Gruinmarkt briefly a couple of times so that we can experience what happens when all the power of atomic energy is massively let loose - just in case readers had forgotten about 1945. They can't land this massive ship and are prepared to ditch the thing in the ocean and hope the crew can launch escape pods in order to escape.
Profile Image for David Harris.
914 reviews29 followers
September 27, 2021
Invisible Sun sees Stross's multiple timeline story of politics, economics and development reach a potential conclusion, and also reach six books by the New Reckoning or nine Old Style (the first six, the Merchant Princes arc, were revised into three satisfyingly chunky volumes). In the course of its unfolding, the story has mutated from portal fantasy to SF, with a distinct technothrillery edge.

In Merchant Princes, Miriam Beckstein, who thought she was an ordinary young woman from Boston, struggled to come to terms with the reality that she was a world-walker able to cross between timelines, and a member of an other-Earthly aristocracy from a medieval kingdom. In the course of that narrative arc, Stross explored ideas about development, the functioning of states, the corruption of democracy and the interplay between family and the wider world - Miriam's cousins in the Clan, world-walking smugglers who put their abilities to good using trafficking special cargoes under the noses of officialdom, being great fans of Family.

Eventually Miriam took refuge in a nuclear-armed, revolutionary-democratic state, the New American Commonwealth, which occupies the American continent in another timeline. And so, in this last (at least for now) instalment, we see the Commonwealth squaring up to a paranoid security-state US. Paranoid, because it was attached with nukes by the Clan, who have now fled to the Commonwealth. It's a complex, game-theory driven situation, a para-time Cold War liable to go hot at any moment even before throwing in revolutionary ultras, a runaway Princess and independent-minded intelligence operatives who don't always think to clear their ploys though the chain of commend.

Elsewhere, though, a much worse threat to the future of the Earths (all of them) has awoken (giving Stross the opportunity to use 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' as a chapter title).

The title of the present book, Invisible Sun, picks up the "family" theme, viewing the effect on great events of family and personal connections as being like that of a great, gravitational mass moving through a solar system, warping space around it and producing unforeseen disturbances in the heavens at odds with the expected orderly progression. Notoriously, there's no exact mathematical solution to the dynamics of such a system (the famous many-body problem). So we see here the existence of not only the Clan, but another hidden family, one made rather than born, driving events in this book. (And in the author's Afterword we see the same theme occur again in real life as he explains why this book took longer to reach your hands than you might have expected).

I really, REALLY enjoyed seeing that second family, the Wolf Orchestra, in action. An old-style East German spy ring composed of sleeper agents in the US, they are now stranded with no home to return to, nobody to broker prisoner swaps with or offer diplomatic cover. But they are tuning up to play one last symphony, pitting their classical spycraft, their dead-letter drops and lamplighters, but more, their discipline and their loyalty to one another, against a modern panopticon state armed with endless cameras, massive compute resources and virtual hegemony in the West.

Virtual, not quite total. An entertaining subplot here features a Berlin police officer who insists on following the rules to the letter while his gang-ho DHS opposites stew in frustration. Also, those EU data protection rules which prevent the raw take from the exported to the US for processing.

I also enjoyed seeing the imaginative creation that Stross has made of the Commonwealth, not a perfect place by any means (indeed in some respects a rather deadly one) but an attempt, perhaps, at a sketch of a better nation. It's one that reminds the members of the Orchestra, in atmosphere if not in specifics, of their vanished home, but also allows them to see a perhaps more perfect version of that. Their status also leads to some moments of genuine, if grim, humour; 'It's not kidnapping: they asked us for political asylum... They're not doing so as American citizens but as citizens of the German Democratic Republic. If you don't like it, you can take it up with Erich Honecker's ghost.'

This book is, as I've come to expect from Stross, slick, thought-provoking but above all, fun with rapid-fire deployment concepts from science, engineering, espionage, defence, politics (of all sorts: within families, within organisations, between arms of a State, between nations, between timelines, you name it) and much, much more. (I loved JUGGERNAUT). Want to see how a princess from an ancien regime, Diving Right of Kings monarchy might behave when she escapes into 21st century Berlin? Look no further. How about a perspective on the accelerating defence technology of a rapidly industrialising revolutionary polity with paratime espionage capability? Here it is. Would you like to to know how that paratime capability might have come into being, and what it means? It's here.

Yes, in this book, we finally see the veil lifted on the origin of the Clan's ability, and how it fits with that other threat, the one that the US and the Commonwealth have been ignoring as they manoeuvre and jostle for advantage. It could be that is a BIG mistake as the book pivots fully into apocalyptic SF...

I would STRONGLY recommend Invisible Sun. It brings epic closure to the Empire Games arc, revisiting many much-loved characters as well as exalting in the doings of new ones such as Rita Douglas and Liz Hanover who are both EXCELLENT and should get more coverage SOON.

I could also swear I saw hooks for followups, despite Stross's protestations about this in the Afterword. Maybe once he's got over writing something longer than War and Peace, he might change his mind?
Profile Image for Clyde.
815 reviews54 followers
January 5, 2022
Great finish to a very good series.
Concerning the entire series, I think Charles Stross himself sums it up best -- "I have finally achieved my genre-shift holy grail: a series that began as portal fantasy, segued into spy thriller, and concluded as space opera!"
Profile Image for Ken Richards.
730 reviews3 followers
April 3, 2022
Charles Stross ties up the many threads of the 'Family Trade' series in suitably impressive and satisfying style. The final installment of this trilogy of trilogies, which began as a world walking fantasy and morphed into science-fiction, political thriller and espionage drama finishes up in spectacular full space opera mode in a multiverse of parallel timelines, complete with a space battle and multiple ravenning nuclear fireballs.

This volume brings to a close the story arc of Miriam Burgeson (nee Beckstein) as she and her family and connections as they contend with managing the defection of a rebel princess, fighting off a counterrevolution and defending against the meddling regime change aims of a paranoid avatar of the US of A. And the potential end of everything from a powerful and pitiless machine civilization, not surprisingly also awakened by the meddling of the aforesaid para-USA.

The info dumps describing the machine civilization, and their interactions with the ancestors of timeline-hopping humanoids is the weakest part of the story. Rather dry, but blessedly brief. They are necessary to the storyline though.

But the edge of seat chase for the rebel princess in the streets of para-Berlin and the blow by blow pacing of the counter-revolution in the Commonwealth timeline are artfully paced, and beautifully realized.

More stories in the setting are possible, but Stross does not intend to reuse the existing cast of characters.
Profile Image for Walt Crawford.
Author 31 books3 followers
July 16, 2022
This review has no spoilers other than that this is, finally, the end of The Mishaps of Miriam--er, sorry. The Merchant Princes. And "the mishaps of Miriam" is my overall problem with the series except for this one: I found the endings of most books so unsatisfying as to be annoying. That probably wasn't helped because I read the first four (or two) in their original slim form rather than the combined doorstop form.

There are plenty of other reviews that will summarize or hint at the multiverse in this series. Charles Stross is a first-rate writer who can plot with the best of them. (He's also good company on Twitter, for what that's worth.) After reading his afterword and apologia, I think I maybe understand what happened with the project. Again: excellent writing, some fine characters, and a set of plots that works out pretty well--but the journey was bumpy.

Bumpy enough that, to be honest, I didn't read the last third of the first trilogy--either The Revolution Trade in doorstop form or The Revolution Business and The Trade of Queens in the original form. [My library can be erratic on series.] And, honestly. I don't think it likely that I'll go back to fill in the pieces. There are too many books, and given that I'm 19 years older than Stross, there's too little time.

The series is recommended if you have the time and access to all six or nine pieces and like this sort of thing. And strongly recommended if you've read and enjoyed parts of the second trilogy.

858 reviews4 followers
February 12, 2023
I've been somewhat critical of the empire games series - it had felt like it had gone too off the rails in its many obvious parallels to the Bush years/patriot act/ war on terror & war on drugs and US pushing countries around -- all criticisms that may be fair but it had felt like it got in the way of the story. It's been gradually working its way through that, and this book felt a welcome end to it, mostly wrapping up threads, setting up some later ones to think about, and finally seeing some characters get some comeuppance.

Part of this was set in Germany, incidentally,which made me laugh at the interactions between the spy-state Americans (in this timeline, imagine the patriot act had been doubled or trebled in power, and then agencies were routinely able to step beyond *that*) and the bureaucratic, privacy-conscious Germans. Probably the funniest segment I can remember in the series.

On the other hand, in order to wrap up threads, there was a lot of infodumping from an omniscient narrator talking about some of the mysteries hinted at before and just flat out telling the reader what's going on.

I'm not entirely sure the main take away is that a superpower needs a rival superpower to keep it honest, but I'm not entirely sure it's *not*. That itself has parallels to earlier in the setting, when a single set of worldwalkers needed another one to kick it out of a local maximum.
Profile Image for Cale.
3,658 reviews24 followers
October 25, 2021
Stross finishes the Empire Games trilogy (and the Merchant Princes universe, probably) with a complicated knot of espionage, government black ops, and external threats. It takes a while to get going, and there are so many groups to keep track of that the first half of the book is basically just reintroducing the characters and getting them into position. But when the first domino falls and the opposing factions start interacting, things get escalated into existential threats. Knowing this was the last book in the series meant that all bets are off.
There's a number of all-too-realistic moments in the political maneuvering - people taking a set of facts and interpreting them completely wrong; people digging in even when they know they're wrong, and siloed organizations running at odds to each other. It all builds up to an explosive finale, although it doesn't quite measure up to some of the finales of other books in the series. Still, it does provide a good sense of closure to this world and its parallels. I also appreciated that Stross provides details on some of the more esoteric concepts he entered into the series.
All told, I'm glad I read this series - Stross' take on parallel worlds is distinctive enough that it brings a lot new ideas to the setting, and very enjoyable action and intrigue.
Profile Image for Vladimir Ivanov.
317 reviews23 followers
November 2, 2021
Ну что тут сказать - многолетнее ожидание того стоило! Стросс не подвел.
История про клан торговцев, путешествующих между мирами, добралась наконец до своего гранд-финала, по дороге многократно поменяв жанры – от портальной фентези до шпионского боевика, с промежуточными остановками "политический технотриллер", "твердая НФ" и "научпоп по политэкономике".
Итак, часть миров мультивселенной лежит в атомных руинах, США в нашем мире стремительно превращаются в диктатуру тотальной слежки и паранойи, зазеркальное Содружество же выстраивает дикую (но симпатичную!) политическую конструкцию, нечто среднее между ленинским СССР на ядерном ходу и современным Китаем. Холодная война нешуточно угрожает перейти в горячую. Мироходцы обеих держав исследуют соседние временные линии как на конвейере, сотнями, и наталкиваются на пугающие открытия. Герои первых книг сильно постарели, обзавелись детьми, но все еще МОГУТ.

Написано чуток сумбурно - видно, что книга писалась много лет, с перерывами, в тяжелых условиях. Но оторваться невозможно. Достойнейшее завершение великой книжной серии.

P.S. На Goodreads наткнулся на невероятно умилительный отзыв на Invisible Sun – типа, книга была бы актуальна пять лет назад при Трампе, но в 2021 году страшилки про тиранию полицейского государства бесповоротно устарели, ведь при новом демократическом правительстве США это просто невозможно!!
46 reviews
January 30, 2022
Realised as I was reading this that I'd started reading this series (OK, the Merchant Princes forerunner to it) well over a decade ago. I can remember reading the author's introduction to it on his blog and thinking that sounded right up my street and mostly it has been. I'm a sucker for alternate histories and parallel worlds, especially when combined with an understanding of politics and the way governments actually work, as opposed to how a lot of fiction presents them.

And I enjoyed this as the capstone to that long and sprawling series, not least because it finally got a climax and satisfying ending despite all the hurdles that have got in its way. (Seriously, the afterword's litany of what Stross went through during the writing of this makes your average Thomas Hardy plot seem like a light romantic romp) It's bumpy and unevenly paced as all the pieces for the big finales are slotted into place or kept in a holding pattern until they're needed, and there's quite a bit of infodumping en route, but the conclusions of the differing plots are good when they come.

Now, where's a streaming service looking for the next series, because an adaptation of these would be great to watch...
Profile Image for Matthew Smith.
48 reviews1 follower
October 27, 2021
I was glued to this book from the opening chapters. Maybe I was in the right frame of mind or maybe it’s just that good. I enjoyed the way the story can draw from the 8 books that came before it so that I feel like I really do live in the alternative worlds. But the plot also twists and turns within this book in its own space. I pretty much liked all the characters from all the different sides of the conflict and how they kept to their motivations. I enjoyed all the spy craft and alternative world stuff and politics. The plotting was a bit hard to follow at times but I could still mostly follow it. It suffers a bit from over-extended-ending syndrome while all the loose ends of the plot are tidied up - to me this is a sign that there was too much going on and we needed to get some of the story in another book. I reckon book 10 could have handled a lot of the ancient history lessons and timeline 4 stuff on its own - but then again, that side of the story was pretty weird. Anyway, none of that mattered to me because I just wanted to hang out with my world-walking gang one more time and see what deep trouble they could get themselves into this time. I was not disappointed.
Profile Image for Helen French.
422 reviews17 followers
October 28, 2021
From what I understand, this book had quite the long journey getting here and that does make it difficult if you read the series as it was released (as I did). There is so much going on, so many timelines, that jumping back in after a long absence felt slightly like hard work.

I struggled to pick up the threads again, and that's a shame because Stross has done some interesting storytelling here - exploring parallel worlds and (if you could jump between them), their affect on everything from politics to economics.

So if you're about to start reading book 1, or even if you've just finished reading book 2, I'd suggest binging them together rather than leaving big gaps in-between.

I won't go into the plot (as you may guess by now, it's complicated) but there are some fascinating ideas being explored through the multiple timelines on offer. The story hurtles from time to time as the plot progresses, only pausing to remind you how one person is related to another.

I sometimes wished it would slow down a bit, and ground me more in each moment, but I guess the story demanded forward motion!

3.5 for the book and 4 for the series
Profile Image for The Man from DelMonte.
366 reviews8 followers
March 11, 2022
I think Charles Stross is a near genius. His books are intricately plotted & have crafty nods to popular and gaming culture. They’re funny and the dialogue is spot on. He writes some of the best SF and light horror/fantasy around.
The novellas Palimpsest and The Concrete Jungle are some of the most staggering things I’ve ever read (and you should all go and read them right now) The Nightmare Stacks novel is a triumph, a beautiful mix of SF and fantasy with a hefty dollop of romance.
However, his one failing is a tendency to paint himself into a corner. I loved the first novel in this trilogy. The second was good but the third was a bit of a chore. Any book that has to spend the first half dozen pages detailing a list of nearly thirty dramatis personae, explaining the milieu and covering the back story of some of the principal characters is getting in over its head. So many things were happening to so many people in so many unfamiliar locations that I lost track of the principals. In the end I was just relieved to get to the finishing line with some characters I recognised.
Profile Image for Jesse C.
337 reviews
July 18, 2022
Very satisfying conclusion to the series. This novel does get a bit more infodumpy than even the previous two, which some might consider a negative. According to Stross that was due to integrating some stuff from a book/series he decided not to write. I'm not sure how 100% necessary it was. might have worked better as a long appendix vs trying to put it into the book proper. But you've got love Stross doubling-down . .

I think that while it would be good to read Merchant Princes first, definitely not necessary to enjoy this series.
91 reviews1 follower
August 31, 2022
Absolutely brilliant. Stross is so deft at weaving together multiple narratives in unexpected ways and with wonderful payoffs.

This is a long series. Stross has written it's just shy of 1 million characters. I read Empire Games #1 and #2 when they first came out, then there was a delay in the appearance of this volume, due to horrible personal stuff happening for Stross, then the pandemic.

So before reading Empire Games #3, I went back and read the Merchant Princes omnibus volumes (3 books, comprising edited/rewritten versions of the 6 books that previously compromised Merchant Princes series). There is a fair amount of world-building, and for volume 2 (The Trader's War) I had to remind myself who some of the protagonists were. But it is a super fun read, all the way through.

Empire Games then of course builds on that, and with the world building well out of the way, but flies by with amazingness.

So, I highly recommend. Ideally, reading all 6 books in order for maximum payoff.
Profile Image for David C Ward.
1,532 reviews24 followers
September 29, 2021
Excellent long running series about a multiverse has evolved from a contra factual history of early modern Europe/America to an analogy of the Cold War with the Commonwealth facing off against the USA. A spectacularly ill judged propaganda coup by the state department leads to the brink of war across timelines. In the meantime, a long dormant civilization - the Hive - has been reawakened by a spectacularly ill judged American incursion into a black hole. As before, these books are sequential and I don’t really see how anyone can understand what’s going on without reading all of them. Stross, as in the Laundry Files, is very good on bureaucracies and their dysfunctions, not least those of the American NatSec state. Like a lot of sci fi, there is a tendency to over explain that slows things down. Will wait for the Hive’s next move…..
Profile Image for Aaron.
50 reviews9 followers
October 15, 2021
A mostly statisfying ending to the Merchant Prince/Empire Games series. Stross deftly weaves a thrilling tale of two nuclear super powers waging a cold war through parallel timelines. The tension ratchets up nicely as shit hits the proverbial fan; as the plans of these nations start to fall apart as each tries to use both clandestine and overt methodology to get leverage on the other. Not to mention the alien invasion that manages to throw a monkey wrench into the whole affair.

He can easily switch from telling the story from a macro lense, to one that is focused on just one character, and still retain the exceedingly insightful discourse I've come to love from him as a writer. Well done sir! I understand if this is the end of this story (what a heartbreaking post script that was to read), but I do hope you'll consider revisiting the series somewhere down the road.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
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