Virga – Book List

Virga is an artificial habitat—a three-thousand-kilometre-wide fullerene ball, in fact, with an artificial sun at its centre. People live in towns that rotate for gravity; the larger, most successful towns form nations and build fleets of ships to enforce their dominion around Candesce, Virga's largest sun, or many of the other stars within the habitat. Beyond the range of a star lies darkness, ice, and death.

Virga follows a small cast of characters, including Hayden Griffin and Vera Fanning, who are caught up in a war between Slipstream and a rival nation, Falcon Formation. Hayden is a pirate from a Aerie, a small vassal of Slipstream that was punished for trying to construct its own sun. He's determined to seek revenge and thinks Vera Fanning, the wife of Slipstream's Admiral, might hold the key. As the series progresses, however, it becomes clear that there's a lot more going on than just the machinations between nations of Virga. Candesce itself emits a field that prevents artificial intelligences from functioning, and when the sun goes out, something outside Virga wants in

Reviews

1. Sun of Suns

by Karl Schroeder

Sun of Suns cover image
ISBN:
9780765315434
Format:
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published:
Tor, 2006

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Karl Schroeder demonstrates an impressive capacity for worldbuilding and imaginative hard science fiction. Sun of Suns is truly awesome in the scope of its technological milieu. The civilization of Virga, with artificially-generated gravity, is as alien to us as the idea of "Artificial Nature" is to the isolated Virgans. Set against this majestic backdrop, the protagonist, Hayden Griffin, is on a mission of revenge that quickly becomes complicated.

Quixotically, Schroeder spends very little time actually allowing us to get to know Hayden. As a result, I found it difficult to relate to the main character—not because I lacked empathy, more because I just didn't know much about him. The story begins when Hayden is a young adult, then jumps forward six years after the massacre in which his parents die. Apparently, Hayden spent the interim with pirates, but Schroeder reveals remarkably few details. On one hand, I admire his ability to avoid what some may consider unnecessary exposition—Hayden only brings it up when it's relevant to the plot. On the other hand, this backstory is important in establishing who Hayden is; I felt its absence throughout the entire novel.

Some of the other characters are far better fleshed out than Hayden. Venera Fanning was a fun and ruthless antagonist with an interesting—and explained—background. Likewise, her husband, Admiral Chaisson Fanning, is a dedicated and patriotic man who is willing to sacrifice his life to protect his nation. In time, they come to rely upon Hayden—and to some extent, he relies upon them—even though Admiral Fanning is Hayden's target for vengeance. I appreciate Schroeder's attempt to introduce moral ambiguity; the tenuous environment of Virga lends itself to the idea that people who are enemies may suddenly become dependent upon one another.

The posthuman universe outside the fullerene barrier of Virga's balloon shell was intriguing. I can only surmise that such an important plot point will be developed further in the next books of this series. Likewise, I found Hayden's love interest, Aubri Mahallan, intriguing but lacking much depth. She seemed marked for "tragic love interest" from the moment she appeared, and Schroeder played the trope straight enough that I had to look away. Her motivations seemed more driven by plot than by character, and her death was almost as needless—although perhaps not as melodramatic—as that of the Rook's chartmaster.

Oh yes, death. There's quite a bit of that in Sun of Suns, beginning with the deaths of Hayden's parents. Lots of fighting and adventure too—this would make a good movie if anyone figured out how to actually film it. For those who thirst for swashbuckling adventure, this book has it all: pirates, vehicle chases (bike chases through air, no less), sword fighting, and free fall aerial manoeuvres. Yes, this book is action-packed. And I am not being sarcastic when I say that this is a redeeming feature. Although I'm not one to enjoy an excess of action, Schroeder makes it a cornerstone of his story. It makes up for the lack of description of characters or environment (beyond the scientific explanations woven into the dialogue). The action elevates Sun of Suns from amusing posthuman rumination to entertaining work of hard science fiction.

Schroeder has created a fascinating world around which to weave a series. I hope (probably in vain) that the next book has better, more three-dimensional characters. Alas, that sort of improvement doesn't seem likely, and the mediocrity of Sun of Suns' protagonist consigns the book itself to the unpalatable category of "good, but not great."

2. Queen of Candesce

by Karl Schroeder

Queen of Candesce cover image
ISBN:
9780765315441
Format:
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published:
Tor, 2007

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I read Karl Schroeder's Sun of Suns almost a year ago and liked it but didn't love it. Queen of Candesce, in addition to standing by itself, has made me wonder if I was uncharitable to the first book. I honestly enjoyed Queen of Candesce every step of the way.

There is no question that Schroeder's Virga is a fabulous example of world-building. But it was so obvious in the first book, so overt, that at times it overwhelmed the story. That isn't the case here. Virga still plays an important role, but it's one that is integrated better into the story itself, which is really a political one.

Schroeder shows us that he can do more than describe a different type of world and drop people with steampunkesque technology and politics into that setting. Spyre is an example of how human politics has adjusted to the unique attributes of living on a wheel inside of fullerene sphere. There's an entire faction of conservation engineers devoted only to keeping Spyre intact, never mind politics. There are rebels who want "emergent government," something that Venera thinks won't work by dint of how Virga itself was designed. And hovering behind everything, there's the sinister but poorly-understood threat of "Artificial Nature." (I'm just now realizing what an oxymoron the phrase itself is, never mind what it denotes.)

Venera Fanning, who was more of antagonist in the first book, is a delectable protagonist. She lands in the nation of Spyre, which is more of a collection of micro-nations on two massive wheels near Candesce. With no previous knowledge of Spyre's politics or culture, she manages to inveigle her way into society, pull a con, and begin building her resource base. Her goal is to have the resources to return to Slipstream with a fleet and take revenge for her husband's death. But as Venera builds power in Spyre, she starts to make allies, even friends, and much to her dismay, develops a conscience.

I described Venera in my review of Sun of Suns as "a fun but ruthless antagonist." She's fun but ruthless here as well. She's fun because she gives every gambit everything she has; Venera is not just an action hero but an intelligent action hero who, once she has decided upon a course of action, commits to it whole-heartedly. She's ruthless because, at least at first, she doesn't care about how much of Spyre she has to destabilize (physically or politically) to get back home. Even when she displays loyalty to her new companions, like Garth, she never develops the same loyalty for Spyre or its people. Venera is always the outsider, driven by the goals that define her.

That's the deeper part of the story. We learn early on that Venera cares about only two possessions: the key to Candesce and the mysterious bullet that broke her jaw. Both are important to the plot, but they are more important to Venera as a character. Venera's accident with the bullet has formed the core of her personality, especially now that she believes her husband is dead: one of her reasons for staying alive is to find the origin of that bullet. But if she solves that mystery, who then does she become?

It's this question of identity that is central to Queen of Candesce. Venera has the opportunity to become the "botanist" of a small cherry-growing nation called Liris, but she doesn't. She instead cedes the position to someone more qualified, then returns to Greater Spyre in order to start anew and try to find a way to escape Spyre itself. Later, she assumes the identity of Amandera Thrace-Guilles, last heir of the sequestered nation of Buridan. Like any good con artist, she must become Amandera in order to dupe her marks (the entire council of Spyre, in this case). It's interesting to watch Venera try to juggle her two identities and watch the reactions of people based on who they think Venera is.

Maybe I just have a weakness for stories wrapped around con games, but Venera's deception makes Queen of Candesce just plain fun. Often she miscalculates, makes a mistake, and has to think on her feet, compromise, and come up with a new plan. But once in a while, one of Venera's plans works out, and every time that happened I just squealed in delight. I'm not sure if Sun of Suns deserves more credit than I originally gave it, but reading it was worth it just to get to this book. Here, Schroeder melds the massive scope of Virga with the minute scope of human lives. And now I know that if Venera Fanning is ever around, I want to be on her side.

3. Pirate Sun

by Karl Schroeder

Pirate Sun cover image
ISBN:
9780765315458
Format:
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published:
Tor, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Few authors manage to win me over the way Karl Schroeder has done. After the mediocre Sun of Suns, Venera Fanning's con game in Queen of Candesce impressed me enough to do an almost complete about-face. So it was with eager anticipation that I started the third book in the Virga series, anxious to find out what will happen to Venera; her husband, Chaison; and the pirate sun builder, Hayden Griffin.

The world of Virga is always a factor in the action of Pirate Sun, but like Queen of Candesce its role is subtler and off centre-stage. Much of the plot revolves around protecting Virga from an incursion by Artificial Nature. However, until the climax of the story, Virga's role manifests natural as all the differences one would expect from living inside a massive fullerene sphere. I can never quite visualize the action (but I'm not very good at that with books set on Earth anyway), but I don't feel left behind. Schroeder never misses a beat in exploiting the unique nature of such a setting, but he doesn't let it become too overwhelming.

More disappointing are the characters. The jacket copy made it clear that Chaison was going to be the main protagonist, yet I hoped against all odds that Venera, when she figured in the prologue, would play a more pivotal role. She was won me over in Queen of Candesce. Alas, Chaison and Antaea are the focus of Pirate Sun, and neither of them are as interesting or profound as Venera. Chaison is not in the same intellectual weight-class as his wife. He is a brilliant military tactician, but his strategy is somewhat wanting. And, I don't know, he just seems a bit . . . dull, stodgy. Antaea is more intriguing, but like Chaison, she lacks a certain gumption that makes Venera a successful heroine. Antaea begins the story on a mission to rescue her sister, despite its possible cost to Virga. She never really seizes the day and steps up. In fact, as if Schroeder subconsciously recognizes what's missing from this story, Venera does play a small but significant part in the climax.

To an extent, Schroeder attempts to recreate the plot of the previous book. Like his wife, Chaison's struggle is one to return home to Slipstream. He has limited resources, plenty of enemies, and his allies have other commitments that could quickly become conflicts of interest. Where Venera's journey was about identity, Chaison's seems to concern duty and honour—and that's where it falls flat. Chaison et al have to traipse about Falcon for a while, seeking a means of escape. Along the way they get involved in a defence of Stormcloud, a Falcon city being threatened by another nation. Chaison becomes one of the leaders of a resistance, banding together with the people of Stormcloud and a circus strongman named Corbus. And unlike the delightful, complex con game that dominates the political landscape of Queen of Candesce, this part of Pirate Sun just feels so random.

So it's a good thing most of the book is fun. That doesn't excuse its flaws, but it mollifies my discontent. Also, Schroeder elaborates on the juxtaposition between technologically-primitive Virga and the Artificial Nature-dominated world outside. As foreshadowed in the previous books, Virga is both sanctuary and potential battlefield for the entities of Artificial Nature. One lifestyle is rough, unfettered, and often unjust. The other is austere, impersonal, and alien. Schroeder shows us why both approaches—absolute embrace of advanced technology and absolute rejection—are unsuitable. In the former, you lose yourself, your identity and your consciousness. In the latter, you lose freedoms, as well as devices that raise the quality of life.

When these two worlds collide, people begin taking sides. The home guard is charged with preserving the status quo. Others, including Antaea's group within the home guard, want to destroy the field that Candesce emits to inhibits computers. Some people, like Venera and Chaison, happily exploit what little they know to their own advantage, even though they don't have a particular desire to see Virga altered by the return of advanced technology. But the key to Candesce is, I suspect, much like Pandora's Box. We haven't seen the last of Artificial Nature.

Everything I read about the Virga series mentioned it was a trilogy, or at least strongly hinted that. Nothing told me to expect a fourth book. But when I finished Pirate Sun, I found myself wanting more—both because I didn't feel like everything was concluded, and because I had enjoyed the book. So I'm pleased to see that Schroeder has written a fourth book, and that Hayden Griffin figures more prominently in this one. Hayden's role as the mastermind behind Aerie's new sun is mentioned, but that's it. He doesn't even get a cameo. And although the ignition of Aerie's illicit sun is concurrent with the climax, the struggle to construct it all happens offstage. We don't see any of the setbacks, any of the resistance or obstacles that Hayden has to overcome.

That's the impression I get about the Virga series in general. It sounds like there's a lot of interesting stuff happening offstage. Pirate Sun is another great return to the unique world of Virga, but like the first book in this series, Schroeder's characterization and plot fail to live up to the great environment he has constructed for them. While the plot and politics do leave me wanting more, Pirate Sun also cooled somewhat my ardour toward Karl Schroeder. He's convinced me that he has big ideas about technology and humanity's future, created one of the most fascinating science-fiction environments I've ever encountered. I just wish his novels were as epic as that environment deserves.