Review: Empire Games by Charles Stross

Empire Games continues the Merchant Princes series, following on 17 years after the events of the earlier books. While the previous books’ protagonist, Miriam, continues as a major character, Empire Games introduces a new protagonist, Rita Douglas, a freelance actor living in a high-security America that’s aware of parallel timelines and extremely paranoid about terrorist attacks from world-walkers. Recruited by the Department of Homeland Security because of her world-walker genes, Rita finds herself railroaded into the role of a world-walking spy. But there’s a lot more going on in the parallel timeline than the US government anticipated.

empire games cover

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book ever since I finished The Trade of Queens, the sixth book in the Merchant Princes series. Stross has created a compelling world in which multiple timelines exist in parallel, and it’s possible to travel between them. One is very much like our own world, or was until 2003, while another saw a pagan medieval-esque culture develop on the eastern seaboard of North America and a third has an industrialised monarchy which, in the earlier books, underwent its first democratic revolution.

But there are also other worlds, including one with ancient advanced ruins, and potential for a great deal more. There’s a mystery at the heart of this series, about the origin of the world-walkers and what happened to turn that ancient advanced architecture into a ruin, that I hope the present trilogy will answer.

When a character has as little choice as Rita has, the pitfall author are in danger of falling into is to make their protagonist passive – letting things happen to them. Stross masterfully sidesteps this by giving Rita a powerful scepticism of authority and allowing her to carefully examine each decision thrust upon her and her options for movement within them. Even though Rita’s life is very much not her own, she still feels like she’s got a lot of agency, and that, during most of the book, she’s choosing to go along with what others have set out for her, biding her time for when her options open up, rather than having decisions completely made for her.

Rita’s story is one that crosses genres – spy thriller, sci-fi adventure, political intrigue, archaeological mystery. It’s perfectly paced, drawing the reader deeper into the web with every page, while never losing the humanity of its characters – that is, their human worries, human reactions, human ambitions, and human flaws. And yet there’s a remarkable amount of worldbuilding and explanation that is divulged, almost without being noticed, without seeming like a lecture or and info-dump. Stross gets this just right.

Even though it says “book one” on the spine, I would not suggest Empire Games be attempted without having read the previous books in the Merchant Princes series. It doesn’t stand alone well, and there’s a lot of context you would miss diving in at this point. But I also wouldn’t blame readers for holding off reading it now until the next two books in this sequel trilogy are published, because there’s a lot more setup than payoff in Empire Games. Not to say there isn’t payoff – there is, and the novel ends with a fitting climax – but it’s clear there’s a lot more to come in the books that will follow.

I rate Empire Games 8/10. Stross’s signature compelling prose makes it hard to put down, and the book sets up the rest of the trilogy brilliantly – but perhaps a little too strongly, leaving this first part a little bare in the payoff department. It’s full of promise, and with a fantastically intelligent protagonist who is sure to entertain and surprise us in the next installments.

(Postscript: I’d like to thank my sister for gifting me a signed copy of this book for Christmas. Thanks sis!)

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