Ashes of Candesce

by Karl Schroeder

Cover image

Series: Virga #5
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: February 2012
ISBN: 0-7653-2492-X
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 381

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Ashes of Candesce is the grand conclusion of the five-book Virga series and a direct sequel to The Sunless Countries. (Well, mostly direct. I would have preferred if it were somewhat more direct, but more on that in a moment.) It also goes to some effort to wrap up all the loose ends and reunite all of the characters of the series. In other words, while some of the previous books could be usefully read alone out-of-order, that is not true of this one.

Sunless Countries ends in almost a cliffhanger involving the long-awaited penetration of the world outside Virga. Ashes of Candesce opens with characters left behind in Virga, but then picks up outside of Virga in short order. Unfortunately it does so by introducing yet another new character, and much of the subsequent events are told through a new perspective. And I kind of wish Schroeder hadn't done that.

This is consistent with the rest of the series to date. Each follows, or at least adds, a different viewpoint. But Keir was one of my least-favorite characters; particularly early in Ashes, I found his viewpoint tedious and a little frustrating. Given that Schroeder also brings back nearly all of the characters from the previous novels, I hit character overload and started feeling like authorial attention was spread too thin across all of the players.

A related problem is that Ashes had some pacing issues for me, which was unusual for this series. There are long sequences of suspicion and verbal fencing, long sequences of political wrangling and infighting that end up being less important than the number of pages devoted to them. There was also a surprising amount of angst and mental dithering for a Schroeder novel.

I think part of the challenge of writing this conclusion is that the Virga series, despite being a pirate adventure with airships, is actually about the same deep philosophical conflicts that have been characterizing Schroeder's work since Ventus and Lady of Mazes. This was hinted at in Queen of Candesce (the second book of the series) and has only become more apparent. A philosophical climax requires both explanation of the philosophical problem and a thorough exploration of the options it poses in order to be meaningful. That in turn requires both emotional introspection and a lot of talking to involve the reader in the problem. But the right pacing for that sort of structure is hard to get right, as is the balance between philosophical revelation and climactic set pieces. Both seemed a bit off here: first in the long, slow buildup, and then in a conclusion that felt suddenly simplified compared to the complex political tangle that had been constructed.

However, complaining aside, this is still a deeply satisfying conclusion. The best parts of Keir's story give us glimpses of another of Schroeder's fascinatingly inventive worlds, one whose details I would have never imagined before reading this book. The factions fighting over Virga's fate all have valid appeals and valid goals, giving the reader a real challenge between alternative viewpoints. (Okay, one of those viewpoints becomes obviously villainous, but there are more than two perspectives.) And the way Schroeder drives the moral dilemma home for one of the characters, while a touch ham-handed, is effective and clearly shows the stakes. Schroeder also does a beautiful job portraying life within the uncanny valley, a good thing since that uncanniness is a key aspect of the philosophical debate.

It helps that he can make one feel both awe and fear at an oak tree, and continues to write some of the best set pieces in science fiction.

The conclusion gave me most of what I was hoping for, including a good emotional climax. There was perhaps too much set piece battle, a few too many characters, and a mild overload of awesome vistas, but those are only nitpicks. The conclusion is the best part of the book, which is an excellent property for a series finale to have. I am of two minds about a few of the reveals, including one that struck me as unfortunate technobabble, but the worst that one can say is that Schroeder is a victim of his own success and raised reader curiosity to heights that were difficult to satisfy.

Overall, a satisfying if not ideal end to the series. Well worth reading if you've gotten this far. I recommend reading Ashes closely after The Sunless Countries, before you've forgotten the details of the plot, since Schroeder offers only limited explanation and it benefits greatly from a good memory of the previous books.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-09-03

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