Empire Games Review – Charles Stross returns to travel among time lines

Empire Games review by Charles Stross

Empire Games

Since the start of the year I have had a bit of the January blues. The best medicine is to delve right into a good science fiction novel. Empire Games from Charles Stross is such a pick me up, and you can now find out if it might work for you too.

Empire Games left me with a bewildering array of emotions, all of them positive. It is difficult to compare this story with anything I have read or seen before. The closest comparison I can think of are the TV-series Fringe and Sliders (first 2 seasons). Charles Stross has created a world that is just like ours, but in which travel to parallel time lines is also possible. This has the effect that world settings converge and diverge in the most absurd ways. I say absurd, because a lot of it is possible, and despite the humor and wit the other time lines have their fair share of dystopia.

A brief synopsis

Through all the madness of alternate time lines are the world-walkers, people who can travel between the time lines and affect changes. Rita Douglas is one of them, though for most of her live she didn’t know it. Until the US government recruits her to spy in other time lines for world-walkers that may wish our world harm. Slowly does Rita learn how her family’s past has sent her and the US government on its present course. Rita must do everything to try and stop a nuclear war from braking out amongst between her time line and one in which the British Empire still controls North America.

That is it for the story. I don’t want to spoiler more. I suggest you read the novel for the rest. However, I will say this. Empire Games is a very human story. Charles Stross has perfected the way he describes the personal responsibilities of people and their roles in large organizations. His work is always very psychological. Take Rita as an example. She is just 25 years old, doesn’t have much of a job and feels unanchored. Yet, how does the US government recruit her and ensure she wants to world-walk and stay loyal to her country. That is the job of her superiors. And so readers are privileged to many opposing viewpoints and personal goals. Charles Stross has managed to weave a wonderful tapestry with them.

Seventh in a series

I know partly why this novel is so successful. It is because I have not read any of the books of The Merchant Princess series except for the first, The Family Trade. And that novel was released back in 2004. Thus Empire Games feels fresh. The backstory of Empire Games is explained in an exciting yet thoughtful way that ensures readers do not need to have any prior experience with the series.

Minor issues

And yet, because this is a new entry in The Merchant Princess series there is a risk of repetition. Why would the author not continue were the story left off? Instead readers are presented with an entirely fresh set of characters and circumstances. Prior characters in the series such as Miriam Beckstein also return, and are important to the story, but the emphasize is not on her. If I had to criticize one part of the story that would be the obvious signs that a trilogy is in the making. It takes almost 150 pages before Rita is first able to travel between time lines. Readers will quickly realize there is simply not enough book before they reach the finish to contain a meaningful conclusion. Instead, Empire Games ends on a cliffhanger. A very pleasing cliffhanger, but some parts of the book do feel artificial.

More to come

I enjoyed Empire Games a lot. It easily measures up to Charles Stross’s best novels such as Accelerando, Glasshouse and Rule 34. His clear and witty writing style as well the diverse environment and characters make this an entertaining journey. The sequel to Empire Games is called Dark State and is expected in January 2018. If you want to remain updated on the progress the author has made on this series then check out his blog.

Score: 8 / 10.

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