Sun of Suns

by Karl Schroeder

Cover image

Series: Virga #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: October 2006
Printing: Advance
ISBN: 0-765-31543-2
Format: Uncorrected proof
Pages: 318

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Virga is a world of multiple suns, a sphere of air full of drifting rocks and nations around a central manufactured sun. Each (major) nation has an artificial sun of its own to light and heat cubic miles of local space. The inhabitants build worlds out of metal and wood, spinning them for artificial gravity, and live with an odd sort of steampunk technology despite the extremely advanced technology required to build their world. The reasons are central to the plot of the book, but I suspect that the true reason was to create a compelling atmosphere of swashbuckling adventure, where the warships remind one of zepplins, boarders duel with swords, and men going overboard can float off through open air and only be lost if they die of thirst before finding another city or rescue (a frightening analogue to clinging to a raft after a shipwreck).

Schroeder called this his pirate book, and I can see why. Unlike his previous novels, Sun of Suns is an adventure story, full of dramatic fights, close escapes, political intrigue, and high adventure. The protagonist loses his family to an attack by an invading nation whose sun follows an asteroid and therefore moves through other people's territory. This parents died attempting to ignite their own sun and win independence, and Hayden is out for revenge. But through one twist of fate after another, he finds himself in the service of his enemies, and then discovers there are worse enemies and more happening in Virga than he ever realized. The feel is almost young adult adventure, although a few sex scenes probably rule out that classification.

Sun of Suns has a slow start, mostly because I never found Hayden himself particularly compelling, but once one adjusts to what Schroeder is describing, it features some memorable vistas and breath-taking set pieces. The action builds slowly over the course of the book and reaches a fever pace that makes the latter half a page-turner. It's not, however, nearly as intellectually compelling as Lady of Mazes or Permanence. The feature idea here is the world concept, but beyond that the idea density is significantly lower than Schroeder's previous books. Perhaps it's partly personal taste, but the mechanics of spinning wooden platforms and fan-propelled ships, however intricately worked out, doesn't hold my attention the way his previous speculations about economics, perception, and identity did.

Schroeder's characterization is good, although not quite as deep as his previous novels (maybe because this is the first of a series?), but here it has to carry the book rather than supporting and cooperating with a brilliant parade of idea explorations. Sun of Suns feels thinner. Towards the end of the book, the characters get some glimpses of what lies outside Virga (quite possibly the same world as Lady of Mazes and Ventus, although this isn't clearly stated), and that improved the story greatly for me. I'm hoping in the next book to see quite a bit more clashes and mixture between ultra-high technology and culture and the swashbuckling native culture of Virga.

Still, this is definitely worth the read. Hayden's growing understanding of the politics of Virga becomes more satisfyingly complex as the book continues, and Schroeder does another good job of avoiding obvious villains and filling a book with people who are right from their own perspectives. The winds and orbits of the artificial world create some unique political issues as well as engineering challenges, some of which Schroeder explores and some of which are left on the mantle for future books. And, most memorably, Virga is stunningly beautiful and startlingly alien by turn. The technology mix that Schroeder created makes the world much smaller, bringing concepts we normally think of at an abstract scale down to a small enough size that one grasps just how huge they are. Normally, suns, nations, and holocausts are simply too large to wrap one's mind around; by bringing the scale down and tightening all the distances, Sun of Suns succeeds in making the world feel viscerally larger. The effect suits a pirate adventure. The treasure map, lost islands, secret fleets, night battles, and devastated ruins are all familiar enough for the reader to slip into the comfortable rhythm of an adventure novel, but different enough to be attention-grabbing and compelling.

Sun of Suns was originally serialized in Analog (November and December of 2005 and January/February and March of 2006) and is being published as a regular book this fall. If you have the copies of Analog, it's definitely worth reading; if you don't, I wouldn't put it at the top of your list, but it's worth picking up when you see it. It's particularly good if you're in the mood for a pirate adventure, but even if not, the description of the Leaf's Choir sargasso is worth the whole book.

Followed by Queen of Candesce.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-06-26

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21