Queen of Candesce

by Karl Schroeder

Cover image

Series: Virga #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: August 2007
ISBN: 0-7653-1544-0
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 332

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Queen of Candesce is the sequel to Sun of Suns, but Schroeder does a great job letting both books stand on their own. I think he's one of the best at writing standalone novels that nonetheless contribute to a larger world. It is useful to remember the events of Sun of Suns since Venera makes frequent reference to them, but Queen of Candesce is thoroughly enjoyable on its own.

Schroeder shifts viewpoint characters from the swashbuckling but somewhat simple Hayden to Venera, a far more complex and manipulative character who played a significant role against and alongside Hayden in Sun of Suns. It's a substantial improvement. Venera does not follow the patterns of quest and coming of age stories. She wants power and revenge, manipulates people to get it, and thrives on politics. When she's blown into the middle of a relic, a huge rotating cylinder near the heart of Virga and the last remaining constructed habitat of its kind, she enters a world for which she's perfectly suited. Spyre has turned inward and isolationist, fragmented into thousands of warring micronations with bizarrely in-grown traditions, and filled itself with baroque politics and crumbling steampunk technology. It's a wonderful setting that Venera turns thoroughly on its head.

Schroeder continues to be, in my opinion, the best purveyor of sense of wonder science fiction currently writing. The Virga series is set in a huge weightless bubble of air containing dozens of small artificial suns and Candesce, their mother, at its center. It tends towards steampunk and mechanisms instead of information and computers. But even here, in a decadent throwback habitat within an intentionally backwards construct, Schroeder throws in hints and glimmers of higher technology and futuristic social organizations. This time, it's a revolutionary organization whose twist on a democratic uprising is a manual for decentralized government involving carefully modelled assignment of roles. The lurking specter of Something that would like Virga's artificial technological limitations removed, as seen in Sun of Suns, also floats in the background, but continues to work only through proxies. Schroeder is going more for a rip-roaring tall tale than the imaginative, futuristic brilliance of Lady of Mazes, but similarities remain.

Mostly, though, Queen of Candesce is about the brilliant setting and set pieces. Nations consisting of single buildings, filled with craftsmen whose ancestors have occupied the same offices performing the same tasks. Elevators which rise to geared hub towns of political power. Unimaginable prices paid for produce grown in one of the few places with both consistent gravity and sufficient room. Holes ripped in the metal of a rapidly spinning habitat. Falling through endless miles of air. Towers standing alone at the edge of whirling abyss. This book is breathtaking, and after a slow start and some necessary scene-setting, it's also breathless. Venera is not someone who waits around for things to happen to her.

The Virga series, while great fun, still doesn't quite measure up to Lady of Mazes or Permanence, but Queen of Candesce takes a significant step up from the pirate adventures of Sun of Suns. Venera is a much stronger protagonist, and by about fifty pages in, I was thoroughly hooked. This is a book that one reads faster than one intends to, even if the masses of battle scenes towards the end get a bit confused. It's thoughtful, beautiful (including the gorgeous cover), and pure fun. If I didn't always buy Schroeder's playful economics, his imagination for superstructure more than makes up for that. If you liked the setting of Larry Niven's Integral Trees, the Virga series is better in every respect.

Followed by Pirate Sun, which I am eagerly awaiting.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-10-01

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