Queen of Candesce by Karl Schroeder

(2007-08-27)

  Tor hardcover 2007

Queen of Candesce is the second book in Karl Schroeder's Virga series, following last year's Sun of Suns. Check out my review of Sun of Suns here for an introduction to Virga and what has happened so far.

When readers last saw Venera Fanning at the conclusion of Sun of Suns, she was free-falling in space near Candesce, Virga's "sun of suns." In her pocket was the key to Candesce, an item that could make her the most powerful person in Virga, yet her situation rendered her utterly powerless at the time. But she has to fall somewhere, and Virga is a world filled with thousands of interesting places for Venera to wind up.

In Queen of Candesce, she finds herself on Spyre, a massive cylindrical world as old as Virga itself. Spyre is composed of numerous nation-states, many only a few acres across. Because they trade in goods originating from old Earth and unique to certain nation-states (e.g., the state of Liris appears to possess the last cherry trees in the universe), the nation-states are very protective of their respective interests; and the world as a whole strictly regulates all incoming and outgoing persons and things. Given its age and insularity, Spyre is physically and politically a crumbling wreck. Pieces of Spyre are breaking off and its rotation is unstable, while its nations are embroiled in a millennia-long war of petty-feuds kept civil only by Spyre's ancient and elaborate trade customs.

Spyre is the perfect world for a Machiavellian such as Venera. With the help of outcast Garth Diamandis, she quickly involves herself in the local politics by posing as the last heir of a once-influential nation-state thought to have died out. As "Amandera Thrace-Guiles of Buridan," Venera locks horns with the ambassador from Sacrus (the most powerful of the nation-states), a group of revolutionaries promoting a system of currency-based emergent government, and preservationists who are trying to keep Spyre in one piece at any cost.

Venera is one of the most interesting characters in Sun of Suns, and Schroeder does well to delve deeper into her story by placing her in a fishbowl of intrigue in Queen of Candesce. Venera is quite in her element on Spyre in fact, she may be too much for the poor locals and the carefully-constructed setting provides an imaginative futuristic analog to Niccolo Machiavelli's Renaissance Italy. Queen of Candesce frequently flashes back to Venera's past to explain how she became so ruthless, both to make her a sympathetic character to readers and to provide an opportunity for her redemption. Of course, some readers might not want to see her redeemed. While I did not find Venera's arc to be entirely convincing, I can understand Schroeder's motivation to soften a potentially off-putting protagonist. Rooting for the ruthless schemer is fun, but what if the schemer purposefully and unapologetically does something that offends one's moral sensibilities? Writing a Machievallian protagonist is difficult for just this reason.

As much as I enjoyed this second chapter in the Virga saga, in some ways it felt less like a second chapter to a larger tale and more like a picaresque side-tale. Venera is the only character from Sun of Suns in Queen of Candesce, and the politics of Sun of Suns nations Slipstream and Falcon Formation hardly factor into the story at all. Like in Sun of Suns, there are ominous references in Queen of Candesce to Artificial Nature, an entity lurking outside of Virga that seems to be exerting some nefarious influence upon all that goes on within the world. Unfortunately, upon completing Queen of Candesce I felt no closer to uncovering exactly what Artificial Nature and its motives are. Add to that an ending that renders much of the story's intrigue moot, and I was left with a vague sense of dissatisfaction and impatience. As much as I enjoyed Queen of Candesce, I couldn't help but wonder when Schroeder was finally going to get around to the real story of Virga.

As with Schroeder's other books, Queen of Candesce's greatest strength lies in the creation of mini-worlds. He has a firm grasp of the physics of his world and its consequences upon the world's inhabitants, from Spyre's incestuous, bickering nation-states to Buridan's low-G "Dali-horses." Fans of Larry Niven's Ringworld books or Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama should be checking out Schroeder's books. I'm already looking forward to the next chapter in the Virga series, Pirate Sun.

2007 Arthur Bangs

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