Empire Games

Empire Games

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—th...

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Title:Empire Games
Author:Charles Stross
Rating:
ISBN:0765337568
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:336 pages

Empire Games Reviews

  • Margaret Sankey
    Nov 05, 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.

  • David Harris
    Dec 21, 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

    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?)

  • David Nichols
    Jan 17, 2017

    (This review contains mild spoilers.)

    The Merchant Princes series, to which EMPIRE GAMES is the first sequel, began as a bit of a masquerade. Charles Stross initially implied that he was telling a medieval fantasy, then revealed that his fantasy setting, the Gruinmarkt, was actually an underdeveloped alt-history version of North America. The series’ villains, the Clan, were a scheming aristocratic family with the inborn ability to travel between their timeline and ours. These world-walkers eventu

    (This review contains mild spoilers.)

    The Merchant Princes series, to which EMPIRE GAMES is the first sequel, began as a bit of a masquerade. Charles Stross initially implied that he was telling a medieval fantasy, then revealed that his fantasy setting, the Gruinmarkt, was actually an underdeveloped alt-history version of North America. The series’ villains, the Clan, were a scheming aristocratic family with the inborn ability to travel between their timeline and ours. These world-walkers eventually ran afoul of our world’s covert-action services and the hyper-paranoid Bush-Cheney administration, and Stross morphed the storyline into a techno-thriller. At series’ end, Stross burned down the Gruinmarkt (literally) and suggested he did not plan to write any more about the surviving characters or surviving timelines.

    For whatever reason, Stross has now decided to return to the Merchant Princes universe, minus the Gruinmarkt and most of the Clan, for at least one more trilogy. This time, instead of a thriller or alt-history tale, the author has decided to write an old-fashioned spy story in the tradition of John Le Carre. His main character, Rita Douglas (daughter of his first series’ protagonist, Miriam Beckstein), finds herself recruited by the Homeland Security Department to become a world-walking agent, and to infiltrate another timeline that her mother discovered. In this third timeline, North America was controlled by the early industrial-age New British Empire, which revolutionaries overthrew late in the MP series. With ample assistance from Miriam, the post-revolutionary state bootstrapped itself into the equivalent of the 1960s, sufficiently advanced to threaten our own timeline but not enough to let our world’s intelligence services electronically spy on them. (No Internet, limited radio and TV broadcasts, etc.) On-the-ground human intelligence had, in this case at least, resumed the importance it once held during the Cold War. Fortunately for DHS, Rita’s adoptive grandfather was a former agent of the East German Stasi (another hat-tip to JLC), and had trained his granddaughter in the arts of surveillance and exaggerated caution. These skills help Rita escape a kidnapping attempt early in the novel, and later almost prove sufficient to let her avoid arrest by New Britain’s security police…

    Actually, that’s about all that happens in this novel, apart from a lot of exposition and a series of flashbacks explaining Miriam Beckstein’s technological-uplift program. (As readers of Stross’s blog can guess, this depended heavily on liberating and educating women, thereby doubling the potential skilled workforce.) Otherwise, EMPIRE GAMES’s plot moves slowly, making its sluggish way through a lot of padding: an unnecessary glossary, two lists of dramatis personae (too many for a 300-page novel), and more than a few cliches in the actual text. IIRC, the Merchant Princes also got off to a slow start, and the plot didn’t really pick up until midway through the series. If Stross stays true to form, we may expect that things will become more exciting in the second volume of the new trilogy, due out early next year.

  • Joy
    Feb 14, 2017

    Great read. And that ending *shivers*.

  • Mark Catalfano
    Feb 04, 2017

    Takes a long time to get the 3 separate timelines straight but it eventually turns into a pretty standard spy thriller. Except for the part where she can transport between alternate worlds that is...

    Very clearly is a setup for a trilogy. In fact the book is 90% setup.

  • Paul Sherman
    Jan 22, 2017

    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 c

    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.

  • Daniel
    Feb 17, 2017

    As a big fan of the Merchant Princes series, I was really looking forward to this first book in a new trilogy that continues the story, in a near-future alternate history. I wasn't disappointed. I loved learning more about how Miriam Beckstein and the other world walkers have been faring since the grand finale of the previous book, and the newly introduced main character, Rita, as well as her East-German grandpa are really likeable characters.

    I don't know if I would have been able to enjoy this

    As a big fan of the Merchant Princes series, I was really looking forward to this first book in a new trilogy that continues the story, in a near-future alternate history. I wasn't disappointed. I loved learning more about how Miriam Beckstein and the other world walkers have been faring since the grand finale of the previous book, and the newly introduced main character, Rita, as well as her East-German grandpa are really likeable characters.

    I don't know if I would have been able to enjoy this book without knowing about the context, all the world-building and plot of the previous books. Even though this is marked as book #1 in a new series, it really is a continuation of an existing series, and I have the feeling you will only fully appreciate this book if you have read all of the old Merchant princes books before.

    Closing side note: Stross paints a pretty dark picture of an authoritarian US regime in the near future of the book's alternate history. It's sad to see that what was meant to be a dystopia is not that much worse than what we are seeing now, in our very own reality.

  • Susan
    Jan 27, 2017

    Good continuation of the Merchant Princes series that I read and loved a few years back. Though if you haven't read the Merchant Princes series, don't let that stop you from reading Empire Games; the author gives the backstory that clues in a new reader without resorting to infodumps. Well written and suspenseful; I enjoyed catching up with Miriam and meeting the new characters in the new installment. This is the first book in a new series, so there are some loose ends left to be tied up in the

    Good continuation of the Merchant Princes series that I read and loved a few years back. Though if you haven't read the Merchant Princes series, don't let that stop you from reading Empire Games; the author gives the backstory that clues in a new reader without resorting to infodumps. Well written and suspenseful; I enjoyed catching up with Miriam and meeting the new characters in the new installment. This is the first book in a new series, so there are some loose ends left to be tied up in the next book(s).

  • Andrew Hickey
    Jan 28, 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

    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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  • Sean Randall
    Jan 30, 2017

    I found this exceptionally enjoyable, rightly riveting and crazily cool. I thought, having had the whole introductory universe x y and z statement that I'd get very confused, but i actually managed to keep the threads straight in my head and utterly enjoyed the work as a result.

    My only small gripe seemed to be the lack of consistency of dialogue and diction in Timeline 3, but even that's not such a huge thing when I consider just how many people we see living there aren't native. other than that

    I found this exceptionally enjoyable, rightly riveting and crazily cool. I thought, having had the whole introductory universe x y and z statement that I'd get very confused, but i actually managed to keep the threads straight in my head and utterly enjoyed the work as a result.

    My only small gripe seemed to be the lack of consistency of dialogue and diction in Timeline 3, but even that's not such a huge thing when I consider just how many people we see living there aren't native. other than that, the whole story rocked along at an impressive pace and I eagerly await the next one.