Karl Schroeder: Sun of Suns

Review of the novel Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder.

I read Sun of Suns over a year ago when it was serialized in Analog and neglected to review it. Which ain’t right, since I think it’s Schroeder’s best novel to date. It the first of a series, and with the second, Queen of Candesce, having just wrapped up its own Analog serialization, I decided to revisit this one.

Sun of Suns takes place in the system of Virga, which is an unusual system indeed: It’s a giant balloon, several thousand miles wide, with a small artificial sun (Candesce) at its core. Virga is mostly pressurized, so people can travel throughough the balloon at will, although at some risk, as the air quality is not consistent. Candesce lights and heats the center of Virga, but the outer reaches are too far away. Humans live in rotating cylinders which are slowly drifting throughout the system. The small “worlds” at the outer reaches light their own small suns to make them habitable. Tech level is middling: Peculiar warships and small jet-cycles propel people throughout the system.

Hayden Griffin grew up on Aerie, a world attempted to build and light its own sun when its larger neighbor Rush, capital of the nation of Slipstream, attacked it and prevented the project from being finished. Griffin’s parents died in the attack, so he focused his young life on infiltrating the house of Admiral Chaison Fanning of Rush, intending to kill him. Griffin rises to the level of a jet cycle pilot for Fanning’s wife, Venera.

Slipstream is at its own crossroads, as Admiral Fanning has learned that two of its neighbors plan to attack it, and that Slipstream’s leader, the Pilot, is heading into their trap. The Admiral assembles an expedition of a few ships to head towards Virga looking for a lost treasure with which he hopes to be able to defeat their enemies.

The book is primarily an account of their voyage, as well as an exploration of the unique environment of Virga: Small worlds, weightlessness, empty space between the worlds, yet still crossable in fairly creaky vessels. Hayden befriends Aubri Mahallan, a woman from outside Virga, who briefly describes the post-singularity universe from which they are insulated. Just as the travellers are getting adjusted to one another, they suffer a difficult encounter with pirates, and later on they search for clues to the treasure they seek in another world elsewhere in the habitat. These elements display both the relationships among the characters, and the political machinations of the story, as everyone wants something, and some people are more manipulative than others in trying to get it.

The book is filled with adventure and swashbuckling, thus making it very unlike Schroeder’s earlier novels, which are generally far more cerebral. It’s very much to the good of the story, as Schroder’s stories often seem to get overwhelmed by their ideas content, and here the balance is much closer. The combat with the pirates is vividly depicted, as is the climactic battle in the floating ships, while ample attention is also paid to hand-to-hand combat in zero gravity. The book weaves its way between high-tech and steampunk, but it stays relatively grounded, which is crucial in bringing such an exotic locale to life.

Although Hayden is the nominal hero, Venera Fanning is the most interesting character: Having been shot by a long-travelling bullet when she was younger, she hopes someday to find who fired that bullet. She also loves her husband, but is as machiavellian as he is, sometimes to his frustration. She’s the character which drives the book’s events more than Hayden is, and she certainly grabs the reader’s attention more readily.

Characters besides Venera are a mixed bag: Both Hayden and the Admiral feel somewhat generic. Of course, Hayden’s been pursuing a destructive obsession for several years, so that’s not a big surprise. Aubri is a bit of a cipher, on purpose, but she gains Hayden’s romantic affections, which only sort of works in the story: The gulf between their backgrounds is a nifty idea, but I didn’t think it played out well on paper. Then again, Aubri is one of the keys to the story’s resolution, so she’s certainly worth paying attention to.

I enjoyed Sun of Suns best of Schroeder’s books to date. It’s more accessible than his earlier novels, while still being chock-full of interesting stuff. My recommendation comes with the reservation that the ideas content might still feel overwhelming to some readers, but if you felt like Schroeder’s earlier novels weren’t quite what they should have been, I think you’ll be pleased with Sun of Suns.