Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder

(2007-02-22)

  

Tor Hardcover 2006

How does one create a physical map of a perpetually changing three-dimensional space?

In Sun of Suns, the first book of Karl Schroeder's new series about Virga, a 5,000-mile wide fullerene balloon containing a miniature galaxy, Gridde the cartographer makes just such a map by suspending a full spectrum of precious gems on strings inside a box.  Each stone represents one of Virga's many man-made suns, and Gridde periodically updates the map by adjusting the strings with the precision of a watchmaker.  Gridde is only a minor character in Sun of Suns, but his work is emblematic of the care with which Schroeder fashions future worlds.  Each component sparkles brightly, and the whole is a dazzling display of the imagination.

Virga's stars provide light to innumerable miniature worlds some are asteroids, others are rotating cylinders resulting in a scattering of floating city-states with proprietary interests in their local suns.  Because these suns and satellites float on the currents of the enclosed space, conflicts between city-states are inevitable.  Aerie, a city-state without a sun, is a subject of the nation of Slipstream.  When Aerie tries to gain independence through the creation of its own sun, a Slipstream fleet destroys the project.  Hayden Griffin, son of the Aerie engineer killed in the attack, vows revenge upon the fleet's admiral, Chaison Fanning.  Bigger problems loom ahead, however: Falcon Formation, a nation ominously described as a "dark bureaucracy," threatens to consume both Aerie and Slipstream.  Hayden becomes an unwilling member of a secret mission led by Fanning and his Machiavellian wife Venera to rediscover the key to a long-lost technology that will give Slipstream a chance against Falcon Formation.

First published in serial format in the science fiction magazine Analog in 2005 and 2006, Sun of Suns is a space opera that reads like a nautical adventure, the heroes sailing the currents of Virga's space in wooden-hulled spaceships, battling with pirates, searching for fabled treasure, and traveling to exotic and forbidden realms (including the ruins of a floating forest city and Virga's central "sun of suns" itself, Candesce).  The story is chock full of derring-do, exciting escapes, and political intrigue, making for an entertaining tale of space-swashbuckling.  As with the universe he created in the novels Ventus and Lady of Mazes (and which may in fact be the same universe as this), Virga is a fully realized world described in complete detail, from the physics of a miniature galaxy in a fullerene balloon to the variety of climates that would exist in such a world to the effect of these climates upon the inhabitants' physiologies, values, histories and politics.  Some questions about the world are hinted at but remain unanswered in Sun of Suns, namely those concerning the circumstances of the creation of Virga (for instance, why Virga's makers imposed technological limitations upon the environment) and what (or who) exists outside of it.  They will likely be answered in subsequent volumes in this series.

Unfortunately, Schroeder also leaves unanswered several questions concerning key characters, particularly the primary viewpoint character Hayden, whose background indicates one motivation but whose actions indicate another.  Schroeder has ample opportunity to delve into whatever conflicts may be going on inside Hayden's head, but seems as closely guarded with Hayden's thoughts as Hayden himself is.  Given his situation, Hayden can be forgiven for his reticence with the Slipstreamers, but Schroeder's lack of disclosure prevents the reader from connecting to and sympathizing with his hero, which in turn prevents the reader from becoming fully immersed in the story. 

The second volume of the Virga series, The Queen of Candesce, appears to focus primarily on the much more entertaining and fully-rendered Venera Fanning.  It is currently being serialized by Analog (you can read an excerpt here), with the hardcover to be published this August.

Karl Schroeder is quickly establishing himself as one of the top world-builders and tale-spinners of science fiction.  While Sun of Suns does not display all of his talent to its fullest (for a work that does, see Lady of Mazes), its virtues outweigh its shortcomings, making for an enjoyable start to what has the potential to be an even better series.

Arthur Bangs 2007

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