This sequel to Empire Games (2017), set in the same world as Stross' Merchant Princes series, plunges us deep into a nightmarish clash of arms, politics, and wills between near-future governments in alternate timelines.
In timeline No. 2, which chillingly resembles our own, the United States has morphed into a full-blown police state in which surveillance is universal and inescapable and the paranoid powers that be are willing to use, and have used, nuclear weapons to achieve their aims. Timeline No. 3 presents a bizarre fun-house–mirror world in which the U.S. never existed; instead, a corrupt, despotic British empire persisted until its recent overthrow by the revolutionary, democratic New American Commonwealth. The U.S. desperately wants to learn what’s happening in this less technologically advanced but nuclear-armed timeline, so the Department of Homeland Security's Col. Smith coerces people, called world-walkers, who possess the ability to cross between timelines, into becoming spies. Critically, recruit Rita Douglas happens to be the estranged daughter of Commonwealth biggie Miriam Burgeson, herself a refugee from the radioactive wasteland of timeline No. 1 and now guiding the rapid development of the Commonwealth with technology purloined from the U.S. The Commonwealth faces challenges from counterrevolutionaries and the huge, powerful French empire, while the U.S., terrified of nuclear weapons in any hands but its own, probes yet another timeline where the hostile remnants of a still more advanced civilization lurk. Tension crackles from every page as readers grapple with the horrifying sociological and political implications, the looming threat of another intra-time nuclear war, and the fates of individual characters embroiled in disturbing intrigues. Even the fact that every scenario ends in a cliffhanger isn’t too annoying given the enormous care and skill Stross expends on getting the details right and rendering meticulous accounts of complex, intersecting events. Not to mention the real-world implications.
Sheer brilliance: when Stross is in this mood, nobody else comes close.