Authors: Charles Stross
Release Date: January 17, 2016
Publisher: Tor
Review Spoilers: Mild
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Before receiving our review copy of Empire Games I had never even heard of the Merchant Princes series. I had, however, heard of Charles Stross and, despite meaning to for years, I had never actually had the chance to sit down with any of his books. Empire Games seemed like a perfect chance to not only to jump into a well established series but to also finally check out Stross’ writing.

Still, I was a little hesitant to start a series that had begun over a decade ago.

Empire Games is the first book in a new spin-off series that’s been designed to stand on it’s own despite being closely related to the original books. It’s meant to be for a way for new readers to explore the Merchant Princes multiverse without having to go back and read through the older source material. I was a little skeptical that it could pull off that lofty goal but it actually does a pretty good job of it. I never felt like I was missing out despite never reading (or even hearing of) the first six books.

Basically, the Merchant Princes multiverse consists of a potentially endless series of parallel universes existing together. Some are similar, some are not. The timelines for each of them diverge at certain points in history creating sometimes vastly different worlds – all of which, though, are essentially Earth.

And there are certain people with certain abilities who are capable of moving between these timelines and worlds. Empire Games provides a description of the primary timelines and their histories at the beginning of the book to help set the stage for new readers. Meanwhile, a glossary and list of characters at the end of the book helps readers keep track of the lingo and main players.

In Empire Games, we follow a young woman living in a version of the United States where conflicts with neighboring timelines have put the world on edge and turned American into a severely overcautious security state. Rita is effectively your average, everyday (for the most part) mid-twenties millennial looking to establish herself.

As it turns out, though, she’s a key player in this multiverse conflict. She’s not only the abandoned daughter of the main character from the original books, Miriam Burgeson, but she also carries a dormant gene allowing her to travel across timelines. She ends up working for the US government, which hopes to switch on that gene and use her against her mother. At the same time, her mother is preparing to defend her new timeline from them. 

This is where things get a little confusing.

The book switches back and forth between the two women’s perspectives pretty regularly – as well as the perspectives of a few other characters. But not only does the book switch between timelines it also shifts back and forth in time. Chapters slip between several different scenes some of them taking place decades apart. They’re always designated at the beginning but it can become confusing trying to keep track of characters, timelines, flashbacks, and the present. There are a lot of different moving parts and a lot of characters’ motivations to sort through.

Still, it’s all very well written.

As confusing as it could get at times, I read through the book in just a few sittings. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the story. Of course, a lot of what I enjoyed tended to have a lot less to do with the main plot than my own curiosities.

For example, I loved the world building. Little things like buildings built by “worldwalkers” who can shift between timelines having bathrooms and entrances in different universes was just cool. And I loved Miriam’s plans to bolster her new found home timeline’s defenses very efficient and intriguing. (I could have really just used a series about that on it’s own.) Plus I became really engaged in Rita’s budding romantic relationship with her old friend, Angie.

Now, I will say, this book was kind of slow. A lot happens and yet it doesn’t feel like a whole lot does. Much of Rita’s story ends up being about training and then some very short missions in the last third of the book. Even now, I’m not sure how I felt about the pacing. In a lot of ways this book felt almost like a mix between serious exposition and build up for something more that’s yet to come.

I’m hoping the second book has more action and moves the plot along a bit more. Really, the most development that seems to happen throughout is the industrial development Miriam forces on her timeline to prepare them for a multiverse conflict. Also, as much as I liked Rita (for the most part) she did have some odd backstory and despite being this ‘normal, everyday’ girl she has some pretty abnormal survival training. It’s explained but still feels a little forced.

But I can’t really complain too much.

Empire Games does exactly what it means to do. It introduces you to a new series without any real need to know any of the backstory. You’re given a point-of-view character who is just as oblivious as you are and then just like the reader she is thrust into this pre-existing world. While it’s a little cliche it’s cliche for a reason – it works.

If you’ve thought about checking out the Merchant Princes series before, I recommend picking up Empire Games. You’ll get thrust right into the thick of things and once you’re done you can always go back and read the other books while waiting for the Empire Games sequel to come out. It’ll be just like a series of really long, extended flashbacks! 

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