The Hidden Family is the second book in the Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross. This is actually the fifth or sixth book by Stross that I have read this year; he is definitely one of my happy finds of 2006. He also seems to be something of a Renaissance man, as his writing includes works in the genres of science fiction, horror, and fantasy (to which the Merchant Princes belongs). I find that his voice is different in each of the genres, and he is a fine storyteller.
The Merchant Princes owes a great deal of debt to the Amber books of Roger Zelazny. In them we follow Miriam Beckheim as she discovers a parallel Earth and discovers she is the long-missing heir to a royal family there. Unlike Amber, however, the Earths of the Merchant Princes are roughly equal, none more "real" than any of the others. Miriam's family only rules on their Earth, but they have found an ingenious way to profit from their ability to travel between the worlds (hence the title of the series). But Miriam recognizes that her family is exploiting the misery of the two Earths they interact with and thus are using a business model doomed to failure. Her plan is to help her family by using the tried and true business model of 21st century America (on our Earth), and at the same time, help the poor and oppressed her family trods on. If she can survive all the machinations of her new-found relatives and their hereditary enemies as well.
The books end up being a strange mix of thriller and fantasy, with a liberal dose of economic lecture being weaved through the stories. However, as much as I have enjoyed the other works of Stross, the Merchant Princes actually ends up being rather predictable. Nevertheless, the main character and main supporting characters are eminently likable and their adventures are fine escapism. Almost all the main characters are women as well, and while my experience at being a woman is a little short, Stross's characters feel like women that I have known and admired. These are generally strong women put in positions where their strengths are allowed to show forth. To his credit, though he could easily make the books into a feminist manifesto, Stross allows his characters to be strong women rather than spend time talking about what it means to be a strong woman.