English writer Charles Stross, whose books burst with pop-science ideas, intrigue, strong characters and even romance, continues his Merchant Princes series with the release this month of The Hidden Family. The series, launched just last December in the U.S. with the publication of The Family Trade, perhaps more accurately could be titled the Merchant Princesses, since the novels focus on journalist Miriam Beckstein and her cadre of mostly female co-conspirators.

Beckstein, who grew up an orphan in the Boston area, previously discovered she had an unknown identity as a long-thought-dead heir on a parallel Earth. This pre-industrial other world is ruled by aristocratic clans who can walk between their world and ours. Beckstein's reappearance throws a wrench in the plans of a number of the clans and she is almost immediately targeted for assassination. To make things worse, everyone she meets seems to have a second, or even a third, allegiance. However, she also discovers that the clans have a secret enemy, a family of world-walkers who have been fomenting inter-clan war.

Working with her best friend from our contemporary world and two young family aristocrats, Beckstein tries to stay alive, works on the mystery of who murdered her mother and investigates new ways for the clans to use world-walking to their financial advantage. Their wealth has been predicated on being able to move goods without going through customs, but dodging the law only works when everyone involved is on the same side.

Stross is an energetic writer (with another much-anticipated science fiction novel, Accelerando, due next month) who creates page-turning reads. If his endings don't quite hold up, it is a minor drawback that doesn't spoil the fun. Readers will be relieved to learn that there is a lot to look forward to in The Hidden Family, including a finale that is all Gothic romance: regrets, a ball and a happy reunion.

Gavin J. Grant runs Small Beer Press in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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