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Invisible Sun

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Member Reviews

I've loved just about everything Charles Stross has written, from The Laundry Files to The Merchant Princes to the Singularity books. I'd read the first two books of The Merchant Princes and thought that would give me enough background, with a little catching up, to enjoy Invisible Sun. Alas, I was wrong. There's simply too much backstory in the previous two Empire Games novels. Finally, I set it aside to read once I've caught up.

In some series, each book stands pretty well on its own, with a little backstory here and there inserted in the book or a little familiarity with the world. This isn't true for Invisible Sun. Be sure you're all caught up with The Merchant Princes and the previous Empire Games novels before diving in.
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It's hard to review and rate this book because you know there's a lot of sorrow and the author had bigger issues than closing the series.
In any case he's a master storyteller and delivers a gripping and fascinating story, a good closure of this series.
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine
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Depending on how you count, Charles Stross's new novel Invisible Sun is either the conclusion to a trilogy that began with Empire Games, or the latest installment in a series that began with The Family Trade in 2004. Science fiction readers know the feeling of staring at a massive tome, a book heavy enough to merit a warning from Human Resources, and wondering, "Is this story actually going to end?" Due to a dearly lamented cat who used to eat books, I have shifted most of my reading to electronic format, but the slowly creeping percentage bar has some of the same emotional force. Here, therefore, is a FAQ about what kinds of resolutions to expect from Invisible Sun.

Q. Are there a lot of nuclear weapons in this book?

A. Yes. A truly obscene number of nukes appear in this book. They are used both in peaceful technologies and for offensive purposes.

Q. I read the first Merchant Princes series and now I'm getting worried. Does the US government murder all the humans on some version of Earth for a second time?

A. No. The first Merchant Princes series channeled anger about Bush-era government. This series offers a different flavor of chilling: a fractured and dystopian federal government that is more statesmanlike and more competent than the actual United States.

Q. Do we ever find out what the deal was with that miniature black hole?

A. Yes.

Q. Does it pose an existential threat to humanity that can't possibly be resolved unless Stross gets a contract for a follow-up series?

A. Well, sort of. But at the end of Invisible Sun, all the humans on the Earths we care about are safe, decisively. For a while.

Q. So, what does this book actually feel like?

A. It feels like a bureaucracy pulling off a heist.

The lumbering nature of bureaucracies is part of the aesthetic, for layered reasons: because one of the governments in play favors the proletariat over aristocratic fripperies, because old-fashioned technology is more amenable to radiation hardening, and because this book is riffing on Cold-War-era thrillers.

There are two different Cold-War-esque conflicts in play here. The first conflict is between an alternate United States and a shiny new North American democracy in another world. Here, we see Stross meticulously working out the implications of world-shifting technologies on larger and larger scales. This plot strand is full of tasty, crunchy spycraft, as well as German police officers being sarcastic about American lapses in civil liberties.

The second conflict is between humans across all kinds of worlds and something that is decisively not human. This conflict reminded me a bit of Mass Effect. That seems like convergence of tropes, rather than direct reference--to the best of my knowledge, Stross is not that sort of gamer!

Q. But it's a lot of fun to imagine Brilliana giving spy lessons to Commander Shepard, isn't it?
A. Yes!

(Disclaimers: I received an ARC for review from Netgalley, and I read part of a pre-publication draft of this book.)
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Over the course of six volumes and almost a million words, Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes series has careened rapidly from one genre to the next. The series has at times been a portal fantasy, a crime drama, a nuclear thriller, a steampunk subterfuge, and finally an alien invasion tale. The series has been many things, but predictable is not one of them.

The series wrapped up this month — possibly for good — with the release of Invisible Sun, a much-delayed but ultimately satisfactory conclusion. This is a book that many longtime fans will welcome, and serves as a good argument for why new readers should give the series a go.

Invisible Sun kicks off with a simmering feud between alternate versions of America, connected by paratime travel (between timelines). In one America, a steam-punk democratic revolution is struggling with a succession crisis, while in the other America (one more similar to our own), the post-9/11 War on Terror has metastasized into a relentless surveillance state. While part of the story involves a covert extradition mission from the surveillance state world, another part of the story involves back-channel diplomacy to avoid nuclear war. Simultaneously, both worlds have to confront a threat posed by a far-advanced and ancient evil race from a third timeline.

It’s a lot to juggle, and our main criticism of the book would be that at times, some of these plotlines receive short shrift. That being said, we appreciate a narrative structure that is stronger than many of the previous Merchant Princes books. Specifically, Invisible Sun doesn’t derail its readers.

Because often, these books do go off the rails with unforeseen problems cropping up for the protagonists. One could even describe the series as an exercise in subverting expectations. It seems as if two or three times per book, the point-of-view protagonist (Miriam Beckstein in books 1-3, and Rita Douglas in books 4-6) concocts seemingly well-thought-out plans … only for things to go sidewise.

As a reader, having your expectations subverted is often a lot of fun, and Stross is an expert at doing so in a way that feels natural and believable. At its best, this series offers surprises that once revealed seem like the natural consequences of the setting and of choices made by the protagonists.

And this lack of predictability has been both the strength, and the pitfall of these books. Unlike the
Laundry Files — Stross’ other long-running and Hugo-shortlisted series — The Merchant Princes never gets overly familiar or in a rut.

But after five books, the trick of subverting expectations can grow wearying. There’s only so many rugs that can be pulled out from under the reader before the trick becomes stale. The directness of Invisible Sun, the more streamlined nature of the denouement, and the lack of shocking revelations and surprises is … actually quite welcome.

We would note that the final 20 pages of the final book does feel somewhat rushed. All the denouement, all the resolution, are jammed into as few words as possible. It feels almost as if after writing a million words in the series, the author just wanted to be over and done with it. And maybe so do we.

The entire book club read the first book in the series, with somewhat mixed reactions, but as of yet, only two of us have read the complete series. Those who made it past the first book were enthusiastic about the unpredictability of Stross’ imagination. Re-reading the entire series back-to-back, it becomes clear just how much Stross has evolved as a wordsmith and as a crafter of narrative structures.

The Merchant Princes is a series that accomplishes a lot in six books; offering a reassessment of classic portal fantasies, delving into development economics, examining the tension between safety and privacy, and exploring ideas about how democracies come into existence and wither over time. At its best, there was no better contemporary long-running science fiction series. And by offering it a definitive conclusion, Stross has provided an opportunity to assess it in fullness.

We hope to see it on the Hugo Award ballot for best series, and if it does will likely rank it highly.
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This final book in the Merchant Princes/Empire Games series is a conclusion to very different set of books Stross started twenty years ago. 

Invisible Sun attempts to detangle the cascade of events that Miriam triggered when she first time-walked into a new timeline by accident and began a business venture that changed worlds. In many ways it succeeds as a conclusion—many characters find satisfactory new paths forward and plot lines are tied up or blasted to a shattering end. 

When viewed through other lenses, however, it falls short. It's often confusing to juggle the multiple timelines with crossings of characters, overlapping dates, and almost similar locations. While time pressure drives the plot, it often feels rushed in an inexplicable manner. 

It is very helpful for the reader to be familiar with, at a minimum, the first two books of the Empire Games trilogy (Empire Games and Dark State). It is a much richer story for those who take the time to meet Miriam in The Bloodline Feud.  

Are there challenges with this conclusion? Yes. Overall, this book, which Stross himself has said was written under a curse, is a satisfying read that provides closure to the story line.
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Awesome red. I have taken me some time to pick up, I've been busy, but God was it good!! It has good originality, a little something quite unique that made me want to read more from this author! Nice discovery! You should read it!
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There was a lot going on in Invisible Sun. I understand the author had to tie together loose ends for an entire series, but I was overwhelmed and confused at times. However, it started making sense and coming together in the end. I'm sure diehard Stross fans will love this book, as it concludes the Empire Games trilogy.
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A great conclusion to the series.  In my mind an improvement over some of the middle books of the previous series.  Sets up potential future worlds to explore but gives a satisfying conclusion to all our familiar favorite characters.  Perhaps we will see some future individual books set in the same worlds.
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Invisible Sun by Charles Stross
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The good and the bad.

First of all, ya'll should know I'm a big Stross fanboy -- and have been ever since Accelerando and hardly anything he's ever written since then has come off as anything less than extremely interesting. I didn't even have a problem with the Eschaton's get out of jail free card.

However... this book, with some admittedly awesome ideas interspersed throughout, didn't land the way it should have. Even Charlie called it in the apology at the end of the novel. It was plagued by 2020 and the tragic death of his editor and probably a bit of burnout on a massive multiple-timeline alternate history geopolitical nightmare of a tale that was originally planned to be TWO more books rather than this rushed, smaller, single capstone.

Don't get me wrong here. I loved these spin-offs of the Merchant Princes with its Cold War sensibilities and escalations between whole earth timelines where history came out VERY different. The idea behind it and the execution has been pretty awesome. Better than the Merchant Princes originals, even. Machiavellian politics and hardliner misunderstandings about what a NUKE happens to be is a very precious thing to me. Think Renaissance Italy coming up against American Politics with a whole bunch of cold war spies hopping between timelines and you've got a good picture.

So what happened?

This one felt rushed. When we're heading up to not just 2, but alt worlds 3, 4, and 5, with a world blasted to hell in one, and we're dealing with joint ventures to MARS, when there are succession issues in some and all-out military coups in another and things get very, very hairy indeed, I found myself feeling a bit short-changed on the character front. The basic plots were great, the tech and the drill-down of the complications are FANTASTIC and even mind-blowing, in perfect Stross style -- but I gradually found out, much to my chagrin, that I wanted to savor it. I would have been much happier with spending a lot more time with the characters, being reintroduced in a more fluid way, let them find new loves, obsessions, etc, before throwing them into the soup.

In other words, I think I would have preferred two books instead of one short capstone. I think Stross's normally excellent quality got strangled by a time deadline and/or the desire to just FINISH it and move on. I can't blame him, but I can feel pity for the series.

This is NOT a bad book, mind you. I'm being harsh because I've loved the others and just wanted to see it put to bed with all the accolades it should have deserved. I mean, seriously, this is some funky-cool s**t going on. I just wanted more for it.
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And so concludes not only the Empire Games trilogy, but the larger Merchant Princes series. My thoughts and feelings about Invisible Sun are tied up in my complicated and conflicted feelings about the overall series. Invisible Sun isn't a book that stands on its own and I'm not sure the Empire Games trilogy can stand apart from the Merchant Princes. Actually, that's not entirely fair. I do think Charles Stross did a fairly good job resetting the narrative in Empire Games for those readers who did not come to it from a Merchant Princes background.

There is a LOT going on in Invisible Sun, almost too much. There is the plotline of Miriam Bergeson and her attempt to hold together a burgeoning democracy in an alternate timeline New York. Miriam was the lead of the six Merchant Princes novels, and is a more minor (but significant) character here. Her daughter is a semi unwilling spy from the United States in what would be our timeline, except for Washington getting nuked by world walkers from another timeline. Miriam's daughter Rita is also a world walker and is supposed to have infiltrated Miriam's administration on behalf of the United States, though Rita's ultimate loyalties seem to be in question. Then - connected to this, the scion of a deposed European dynasty from that alternate timeline is defecting to Miriam's nation (it's not Miriam's nation, but that works for a quick descriptor) and is on the run trying to make her way to Miriam via worldwalking and is on the run in Berlin with a bit of a plot to get her to where she needs to go. Yet more, and only semi connected to any of this - in an unrelated timeline but that is being used by the United States as a staging and research area, the Americans have somehow alerted an alien presence and there is some high tech destruction beyond the scope of what the Americans can image. Any one of these things, especially the tangential existential threat of the aliens, could be is own novel. 

It doesn't quite hang together. When I wrote about Empire Games I noted that "the level of Stross's writing is actually beginning to rise to the level of his ideas" because with that was in contrast "the previous Merchant Princes novels where the writing was just barely serviceable enough to keep pace with how fascinating the creation of this world walking conflict was". The second novel in the trilogy, Dark State, did not quite live up to the promise of Empire Games. It's not that Dark State was bad, per se, it's just that much of the novel was too slow and I tend to only appreciate Stross's work when his narrative pace is closer to, let's say, breakneck.

So even if I am able to separate this novel from Stross's earlier Merchant Princes work, Invisible Sun doesn't quite hold up to be the novel I wanted it to be - which from that perspective seems entirely unfair if I mean that to be that I had any sort of real expectation for Invisible Sun. I didn't. The novel I wanted Invisible Sun to be was...well...good or at least engaging (which would be good enough). It gets back to most of my criticisms of Stross's work where I absolutely love the ideas behind his novels and tend to dislike the actual novels themselves.

But that's the thing - everything about Invisible Sun and the Empire Games trilogy and the Merchant Princes series is amazingly cool and exciting and some of the best science fiction concepts that I want more and more of - but when it's all put together that promise is never realized.

This is, of course, talking around Invisible Sun itself because I could talk about individual plot points and I do half hope that Stross does write more about that inter timeline war between humanity and the alien robot things, but he spent a reasonable amount of time near the end of the book covering enough of it that more might be superfluous. That, and I'm not really the guy to be asking for another novel from Charles Stross that I'm likely to be disappointed by.

But digging into a particular storyline and telling you why one does or does not work for me isn't so much about the storyline or a plot point, but about the execution.

I want to love this book and this series so much that I keep coming back to it. If Stross writes another in a related series, I'll probably read that too. I just need to remember to reset my expectations.
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This was a complex book, with all the timelines involved, but I got immersed in it and gradually  it all came together. An enjoyable read. Thank you to netgalley and the publishers for giving me an advance copy of this book.
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