We’re reading THE BLOODLINE FEUD by Charles Stross

18 Apr

Adrian Ellis climbs into a fast car full of soup.


The Bloodline Feud
Charles Stross
Tor, PPB £9.99

SF and fantasy novels are big now: physically big. Five hundred pages is just warming up for a modern escapist story in this genre. A lot of people put this trend down to The Lord of the Rings, a tome that used to be printed in text small enough to make your eyes water, just to keep the publisher’s printing bills down. Have you read The Lord of the Rings lately? Once, it felt like you needed a sabbatical year just to get through the blessed thing. Now the story zips along like an express train full of dwarves. It is not a long any more; its length pales in comparison to Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle or Peter F. Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction. We’ve entered an age of Behemoths.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Stephenson is a master of the long story. Cryptonomicon, a story that runs to 928 pages, never feels padded and is full of ideas and events. Buying that novel, a reader gets many hours of enjoyment for the price of a lunch. Still, there is a danger that to meet such huge page-count expectations, a writer will simply churn out chapters rather than hone them until every line is important. Every paragraph, even every sentence in Douglas Adams’s The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy andCormac McCarthy’s The Road can be savoured. Each one is needed, has meaning, has been boiled down to its bare essence, like a really good curry. If you don’t boil off that excess, you get soup.

The Bloodline Feud is the first of three omnibus editions of Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes series, which ran from 2004 to 2010 and is about to be extended thanks to a rather tidy publishing deal with Tor. What were once six normal books are now three big books.

It was always thus, though you used to have to wait till you were dead for this sort of thing. (These days, if you can find them at all, Henry Green’s novels turn up in threes.) What is rather more surprising is the publisher’s assertion that “Stross has worked through the text to polish and update the text so it’s even better than the original.”

Really? Because The Family Trade, the first of the series and the first of the two books concatenated here, is soup. The ingredients are great; Stross writes with skill and assurance, summoning up believable characters and peppering his descriptions with phrases that stick in the mind, memorable lines like “black space-age Aeron chairs everywhere, all wire and plastic, electric chairs for a fully-wired future’”; but there is no sign that he wants to boil off the excess. Adverbs begin to pop up like weeds; “She wanted to hug her mother, but she looked increasingly frail. She was only in her mid-fifties, but her hair was increasingly grey.” It is as though Stross doesn’t have time to go back and cut back. He powers on, knocking out the dialogue and everyday descriptions with a skilled, experienced eye but with the cruise-control button firmly engaged.

The Secret Family begins with the heroine being kidnapped, SWAT-style, and taken to the story’s alternate world. Here, Stross moves up a gear, producing tight, fast, engaging prose. He’s clearly in his element and knows the territory well. He still leaves behind ragged lines – ‘his face was set in a faintly wistful expression’ – but the events gather pace and the characters are running. Stross uses the contrast between the alternative world – feudal, medieval – and the modern real world to good effect, while keeping up the intrigue and tension.

This is where the story will win over the reader, with Stross’s worldly-wise, contemporary heroine, skilled but human, trying to stay alive in a world both feudal and corporate. Dungeons and boardrooms, if you like: D&B. When Stross is on home ground, he rattles along like a V8, LIDAR equipped, chainmail Lexus. You won’t be disappointed.

Look out for Adrian Ellis’s competition-winning short story The Lost Emotion in the next issue of Arc, coming soon.

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