Karl Schroeder is probably the best science fiction writer still writing today. He also happens to be one of those sadly under-appreciated writers. I think his low number of fans is probably due to the fact that his books are hard to quantify. His ideas are so big that they can’t be described in a few phrases or often even in a few pages. In fact many of the ideas that Karl Schroeder writes about would easily fill an entire series for most authors. Karl Schroeder just throws in three or four (or more) for each book.
The great thing about this is that he doesn’t turn them into epic tomes of encyclopedic volume. His books are relatively short, about three hundred pages, and he casually liters them with ideas that continually give me the creeps at their sheer imaginativeness. He creates completely new forms of government – not slightly modified versions of earth governments but completely new – and has a character casually mention reading about it in a book once. He imagines a new kind of technology, one that is realistic but completely outside of any of the ways scientists currently think, and then places the story in a world where that technology doesn’t work.
In Sun of Suns Karl Schroeder introduced readers to the world of Virga. Virga is a giant metal balloon of breathable gas free-floating in space. At it’s center is Candesce, the Sun of Suns, a man-made fusion sun that lights up the center of Virga for hundreds of miles. There were great naval battles fought in zero-gee and pirates and smugglers and hidden countries. The group of heros travelled to the skin of the world and then into it’s center to the Principalities of Candesce all in an effort to forestall the imminent attack of Falcon Formation on their homeland.
Queen of Candesce is a more insular novel, focusing on only one of the characters from the previous book. Vanera Fanning is the conniving, brutal, vindictive, emotionally traumatized, foreign wife of Admiral Chaison Fanning. At the end of Sun of Suns Vanera found herself free floating near Candesce, alone and with only a few possessions – the key to Candesce and a pocketful of treasure.
Queen of Candesce begins with Garth Diamandis rescuing the unconscious Vanera from hitting the spinning wheel of Spyre. Spyre is the only wheel left that was originally built by the makers of Virga and is the only one large enough to host such wonders as cherry trees and horses. Because of it’s monopoly on such Earthly treasures Spyre has become a checkerboard of single acre nations all trying to trade with the outside (of Spyre) world without letting anybody know what it is they trade in.
Vanera, finding that the skies around Spyre are booby trapped and she can’t get off, and hearing news that her husband was killed in his attempts to stop Falcon Formation, sets herself up as the long lost heir to one of the forgotten countries of Spyre. In so doing she acts as the spark that ignites a revolution in the political tinder box of Spyre and everything erupts into chaos.
Vanera meets revolutionaries intent on creating an “Emergent Democracy” an idea so different from any other kind of government that it seems impossible to describe.
Karl Schroeder writes very good conflicted characters. Vanera is trying to be considerate and kind to people but she was raised in a house where that was not acceptable. She was taught to always hold grudges, get back at every insult, and most of all, always watch your back and look out for yourself. As a result she has issues with trusting people. She doesn’t like anyone to get the drop on her. She has a temper and she’s not afraid to kill people if it’s in her best interests. In her defense she tries to always make sure it’s also in other people’s best interests as well and is usually smart enough to arrange it so that that is the case. She also has a neurotic obsession with a stray bullet that struck her jaw when she was a teenager. She carries the bullet around, intent on finding the source of that bullet, somewhere in the skies of Virga and destroying whoever fired it.
Vanera Fanning, for all her flaws, tries to be a good person. She married Chaison Fanning so that she could escape the murderous, vindictiveness of her own family and she wants to change her life, to be more normal. All of that paranoia and abuse don’t go away over night, however.
Schroeder’s books are often described as hard science fiction. I think the reason for this is because the science is all very realistic. His website documents much of his research and the physics and calculations involved and points out that his design for Virga is actually conservative when it comes to how big such a balloon could possibly be.
The reason that I don’t call it hard science fiction is that none of this is in the novels. The place exists and if you care to check on it’s scientific accuracy you can do so, but for most of us who just want a fun, believable story, that’s all we get.
Queen of Candesce has a very fast pace. Things happen nonstop and Vanera grows as a person, slowly working her way through her own emotional traumas. Along the way she even helps Garth Diamandis recognize some of his own flaws. Much of the action is political, but there is a fair amount of physical action as well. Vanera is devious and tricksy and it’s always exciting to see what new trick she’s going to think up, what new plot she will devise.
Karl Schroeder isn’t going to win any awards for his beautiful prose but neither will he be worthy of any real complaints either. The word that comes to mind when describing his writing style is transparent. Which, I believe, is a good thing. I read the entire book without once even noticing a particular turn of phrase or poetic line of description. The book flowed from beginning to end with no repetition and no poignant bits of ‘look at how good I am’ from the author.
I have two complaints about Queen of Candesce. One is that action scenes towards the end of the book got confusing. There were several times that I felt completely lost and couldn’t figure out what was going on. While this is fairly realistic for a battle, I’m guessing, it’s not very good writing. (Or movie making if the makers of the most recent Transformers movie want my opinion.) These scenes are short and quickly become more clear so it’s not enough to detract from the entire story but they are annoying. The other part that upset me was also near the end. Karl Schroeder felt, for some reason, that he needed to add a gratuitous sex scene. The scene had no bearing on the outcome of the story or the characters. This kind of thing infuriates me because it was completely unnecessary. The scene could have been removed from the book without anything other than the page count being altered.
I really enjoy Karl Schoeder’s work. He is one of the brilliant writers of today and his imagination is simply astonishing. I hope that my complaints about this book were a fluke so that I can continue to read his books.