This start to his alternate historical science fiction series proves that Charles Stross is an outstanding talent and – unsurprisingly – won the 2005 Sideways Award for Alternative History, as well as a nomination for a Locus Award.
Miriam Beckstein is happy in her life. She’s a successful reporter for a hi-tech magazine in Boston, making good money doing what she loves. When her researcher brings her iron-clad evidence of a money-laundering scheme, Miriam thinks she’s found the story of the year. But when she takes it to her editor, she’s fired on the spot and gets a death threat from the criminals she has uncovered. Before the day is over, she’s received a locket left by the mother she never knew – the mother who was murdered when she was an infant. Within is a knotwork pattern, which has a hypnotic effect on her. Before she knows it, she’s transported herself to a parallel Earth, a world where knights on horseback chase their prey with automatic weapons, and where world-skipping assassins lurk just on the other side of reality – a world where her true family runs things.
I love this world – where Miriam is constantly cold away from her modern comforts. Where, as a thirty-two year old, she is regarded as a dowager – almost past her prime purpose, which is to make an advantageous match and provide plenty of babies also capable of world-walking. However, as the tension mounts and news leaks out that she has been found, Miriam finds herself in acute danger and unable to fully trust anyone – not even Roland… The heroine is enjoyably complex with a completely understandable reaction to the shock of switching between the two worlds.
This is standard fantasy fare – but there is nothing standard about the rawness and real sense of trauma experienced by Miriam as she finds herself catapulted into this new, hostile existence without any prospect of being able to safely return to her former life. As we are pulled into her adventures, there is a constant sense of danger as she feels herself unable to completely trust anyone in this complicated, brutal world. While the intrigue thickens and the plot gathers momentum, Stross keeps the pace and narrative driving forward to the end of this particular story – leaving me looking forward to reading the second book in the series, The Hidden Family.