Well, this is awkward! I started reading Charles Stross’ The Family Trade , and I utterly despised it. I hated it deeply and passionately, and I started writing a bile-filled entry giving the following examples (all within the first ten pages) of why it sucks:

  • The opening line is “The sky was the color of a dead laptop display, silver-gray and full of rain.” This may be one of the worst opening lines ever. It’s in-jokey (it makes no sense at all if you’re not familiar with Gibson’s famous opening line), it’s gracelessly written (”dead laptop display” is flat and clunky where “television tuned to a dead channel” is vibrant), it’s a bad metaphor (Without reading the second clause of the sentence, how would you picture a dead laptop display? I’d go with “flat black”), and it is far, far too impressed with its own cleverness. This is the sort of sentence that ought to be red-penned out of the manuscript on the first editing pass.
  • A description of the protagonist mentions “her shoulder-length hair, which was stubbornly black and locked in a vicious rear-guard action against the ochre highlights she bombarded it with on a weekly basis.” I’m skeptical that people really highlight their hair weekly, but it might be possible; I’m even more skeptical about anyone ever describing their hair color as “ochre”. A quick Google search shows the phrase “ochre hair” used by Cat Stevens and some guy writing Zelda fanfic.
  • “She dived into her closet and found herself using her teeth to tear the plastic bag off one of the three suits she’d dry-cleaned on Friday”. Every dry cleaner I’ve gone to has used super-lightweight bags that are trivial to tear. And besides, there’s always an opening at the top for the hanger, so it’s easy to get your hands in there and get leverage. I’m willing to bet that nobody in the history of all mankind has ever used their teeth to rip a dry-cleaning bag. (Note too the hyperactivity of “dived.” I suppose after you’ve “shuffled” to the bathroom and “fled” to the kitchen, you have no choice but to dive into your closet.)
  • “Black space-age Aeron chairs everywhere, all wire and plastic, electric chairs for a fully wired future.” This sentence is not only embarrassingly overloaded with hyper-cool metaphor, it’s nonsensical. Aeron chairs aren’t “wire” — they have a polyester fabric mesh.

Everything is just plain wrong. Wherever he gets a chance to put in some detail, Stross puts in details that ring false, and jolt the reader into saying, “Wait, no, that’s not right!” I very nearly quit reading within that first ten pages, but I decided that I’d keep on, and wait until things got to fantasy-land. After all, most mundane-into-fantasy crossover novels suck during the obligatory “normal life” establishing shot section, and maybe Stross’ fantasy land would be better than his depiction of modern America.

Well, it is. By a lot. In fact, once it gets to the fantasy world, this book becomes downright excellent, and I read through it quickly, and then right through Charles Stross’ The Hidden Family , the sequel/second half of the book (don’t start the first without having some access to the second, as this is one of those split books that are so irritatingly prevalent these days), loving it the whole time. Bizarrely, when the protagonist came back to the real world, things got all wrongly-detailed again (“Chateau Rothschild” is Bordeaux, not champagne. Why mention a specific producer if you’re not even going to look it up?), but for the rest of the time, it was great.

I’ve mostly avoided Stross because I’m so over the whole technogeek singularity thing; while I thought these books were great, and well deserving of their Hugo nomination, I’m oddly reinforced in my prejudices about his pure SF books. I think that his SF would be full of all the stuff I hated about these books, and missing all the compensatory stuff that I loved. (Although I should note that it’s misleading to call these books fantasy. Yes, they’re marketed as fantasy and have certain fantastic elements. They’re not fantasy. They share more in common with Gould’s Wildside than Duncan’s The Seventh Sword, though they thankfully partake more of Duncan’s breezily energetic pacing than Gould’s dull slogging.)

Recommended for readers who don’t mind getting a bit of SF in their fantasy, or vice versa.


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