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Empire Games by Charles Stross. Book Review

January 27, 2017


Empire Games is set in a world of alternative timelines already established by Charles Stross in the Merchant Princes series which introduced the world-walkers, people genetically capable of moving between alternate time lines. We are now nearly twenty years later and things have moved on apace in the ongoing battle of wits between the authorities in Time Line Two (similar to our world up to 2003) since a faction of the world-walkers detonated a stolen nuclear weapon in the White House and assassinated the President. Rita Douglas is ‘rescued’ from her dead-end job, by a shadowy government organisation, because she has the genetic potential to world-walk between alternate timelines.

Including Time Line Two, there are three other timelines. In Time Line One, history diverged around 200–250 BCE, leaving that world with a complete collapse of the Roman Empire, and no Judaism, Christianity or Islam. The result is a group of quasi-medieval colony kingdoms along the eastern seaboard of North America, with Chinese traders established on the western seaboard. The world walkers-ability to cross between timelines has made them very wealthy merchant-traders. Miriam Burgeson, a world-walker of noble birth, originally from Time Line One, has sought sanctuary for her group of world-walker survivors in Time Line Three, where they have gained a political toehold due to their knowledge and ability to steal technology from Time Line Two. In Time Line Three, England was invaded by France in 1760 and the British Crown in Exile was established in the New England colonies. Time Line Four is locked in an uninhabited ice age, with some intriguing archaeological remains which might offer promise or pose a threat to the authorities in Time Line Two.

These different timelines provide a great deal of scope for a plot in which political manoeuvering and the deployment of spies provides something for an adventurous reader prepared to wrestle with the challenges of the plot, the many key characters and sometimes rapid shifts from one timeline to another.

The explanatory notes, the list of characters and a glossary of terms is helpful. But I decided not to use them to see how much I could grasp as I went along. It turns out quite a lot. I felt it made for an interesting read because I was seeing the world’s through Rita Douglas’s perspective of having to adapt to situations as they developed, as well as having to mentally assemble all the information into a bigger picture.

The device of being largely introduced to the action through the character of Rita, taken from a life of obscurity and job insecurity into an organization who wants to use her as a spy, worked really well, as well as the transcripts of classified meetings.

Rita’s first excursion on a mission into an alternative timeline is particularly effect as Stross makes the most of her perspective and the spy craft evident in the book is also very engrossing and credible.

Rita is certainly an interesting character, because she is not a kick-ass heroine, but more someone who has been taught by her East German grandfather (with a very murky past) to slip between the cracks. It is why I anticipate being able to witness Rita discover her true potential in subsequent books. Certainly there are hints from her resourceful behaviour that she may not always be the passive pawn pushed from pillar to post by the more aggressive players in this extended political chess game

Empire Games is one of those books which entertains and provides the satisfaction, on a subsequent read, of being able to see how things all fit into place.

Empire Games was courtesy of Pan Macmillan via NetGalley

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