Last January’s Empire Games kicked off a new, standalone chapter in Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes continuity: a science fictional thriller involving panopticon societies, multiple timelines, a cross-timeline Cold War and nuclear-armed standoff, political crises, and family secrets. It packed a lot into a relatively slender volume. As its sequel—and the middle book of a trilogy—Dark State has a great deal to live up to, and even more work to do.
It succeeds admirably.
In Empire Games, Stross created an intricate and precisely paced thriller, with multiple plotlines and multiple important characters. The challenge of a trilogy’s middle book is always to advance the developments and arc set up in the first book while still being a satisfying novel in its own right; to set up (without overshadowing) the concluding volume; and to do all this without letting its pacing drag. Dark State is, if anything, an even more thrilling thriller than Empire Games, for now the reader and most of the characters know most of the stakes.
Worldwalker Rita Douglas, adopted granddaughter of Kurt Douglas (former East German spy and part of an undercover ex-spy mutual assistance society calling themselves the Wolf Orchestra), has realised that her handlers at the Department of Homeland Security are using her to play mindgames with the mother who gave her up for adoption at birth: Miriam Burgeson, now a powerful political figure in another timeline. In Miriam Burgeson’s timeline, the revolutionary New American Commonwealth is facing a succession crisis as its first—and so far only—executive leader approaches death. The emperor-in-exile of the New British Empire, which the Commonwealth overthrew, may have the support of the French to launch an attack once that leader is dead. But unbeknownst to the emperor-in-exile, his daughter and heir Elizabeth Hanover is in contact with the Commonwealth. She has her own plans, and factions within the Commonwealth dispatch the worldwalker and spy Major Hulius Hjorth in order to assist in her defection.
Hjorth’s plan involves a lot of moving parts across two timelines. He’ll use the Germany of the USA’s timeline to access the Germany of the Commonwealth’s timeline, operating the whole way in hostile territory in order to get Elizabeth Hanover from the Berlin of her own timeline into one where no one will be hunting for a missing princess—in order to bring her back to the Commonwealth in one piece. But plans with a lot of moving pieces have a tendency to go unexpectedly horribly wrong…
Meanwhile, Kurt Douglas and Rita’s girlfriend Angie are working together to try to figure out how to keep Rita safe, while Rita has been dispatched as a diplomatic courier from the USA to the New American Commonwealth. Rita’s second introduction to her Commonwealth relatives is only a little less traumatic than the first time around, but her mother’s faction within the New American Commonwealth sees her, at least, as less intrinsically disposable than her DHS handlers. They’re making her the public face of the hoped-for negotiations with the USA—at least for now.
In yet another timeline, unknown to the powers of the New American Commonwealth or to Rita and her allies, Homeland Security is investigating a tiny black hole where the Earth used to be. It appears to be surrounded by remnants of dormant alien technology. Unfortunately, DHS’s investigations seem to have woken that technology up, and the consequences for the investigators might not be ideal…
Stross’s approach to the spy thriller is at times brutally pragmatic about the realities of power in the imperialist project: people are tools, and thus disposable, to the higher echelons of DHS. This puts all of the characters under ever more tension. Dark State is a complicated piece of clockwork with many precisely tuned gears, ticking away under high tension. Stross plays all the pieces off against each other, building a sharp-edged jigsaw of intrigue and potential betrayal with fascinating characters—all of whom come across as entirely, compellingly human—and dilemmas of trust, surveillance, and power.
Dark State doesn’t resolve anything. But it ends on some nailbiting cliffhangers, and presents some really interesting problems for book three. I’m looking forward to seeing how Stross pulls off the conclusion.
Dark State is available from Tor Books.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.