Karl Schroeder: Queen of Candesce

Review of the novel Queen of Candesce by Karl Schroeder.

The sequel to Sun of Suns – which just wrapped up being serialized in Analog – takes us back to the unusual environment of Virga, a giant balloon environment surrounding an artificial sun, Candesce, in which people live in rotating cylindrical “worlds” which drift through the space. While Sun was a nonstop tour of the space in Virga, Queen of Candesce takes place almost entirely on Spyre, one of the oldest worlds in Virga.

The novel opens with Venera Fanning drifting into its space after her escape from the circimstances at the end of Sun. She’s rescued by Garth Diamandis, an aging rake who ekes out a living in the no-man’s-land space of the main cylinder of Spyre. Venera doesn’t know whether her husband, Chaison, accomplished his mission to save their home of Slipstream, and she doesn’t know what else has happened since leaving Candesce with its key in her pocket. Garth robs her of some of her valuables as “payment” for saving her, but not trusting him to do more, she escapes and tries to jump off the edge of the world, but is instead captured and becomes a citizen of the nation of Liris.

Spyre has been divided up into thousands of small nations, most of them with a few valuable assets which they trade with other worlds, and many of them being extremely small: Liris is just a few dozen people in a single building. Liris is currently ruled by Margit, who is in fact a representative of the much larger nation of Sacrus, which is engaged in a lengthy struggle for dominance of Spyre. Not to give too much away, but this little claustrophobic nation makes for an exciting episode of the story all by itself, at the end of which Venera finds herself reunited with Garth. While Venera at first wants to leave the world, Garth presents another option: Posing as the last heir of an ancient, powerful, and defunct family and accumulating her own power base on Spyre, with which she could return to Slipstream to seek vengeance for her husband.

This takes Venera to the realm of Lesser Spyre, buildings and structures high above the main ring in which the powerful and privileged live and trade with the outside. This also brings her firmly into conflict with Sacrus, as Venera’s presence upsets the balance of power which Sacrus has been gradually upending over centuries. Venera encounters friends, enemies, rebels, tyrants, and madmen during her time on Spyre, in an adventure which is transformative for both herself and the world.

Sun of Suns was a lot of fun, and Queen of Candesce is even better. For one thing, rather than skipping among several different points of view, Queen almost entirely focuses on Venera (with time out taken for Garth a couple of times). Venera was the stand-out character of the first book, so getting inside her head for the second book is an excellent choice.

Spyre is an even more claustrophobic environment than those in Sun; despite being a huge habitat, the place feels constrained, because of the stratified social and economic environment, and the fact that Venera’s first ally – Garth – is an outcast from the social structure, living on the edge of even the society of outcasts. Therefore watching Venera – who is a dramatic and active heroine, despite her calculating nature – try to thread her way through the nations of Spyre makes for a lively plot.

The plot turns entirely on Venera’s disruption of the status quo on Spyre, and her opposition to Sacrus’ plans, as well as her delivering the Key to Candesce into this charged environment. It’s a lively story, and there’s little reason for me to spoil any of it for you, save to say that although there will clearly be more books about Virga, Queen still has a satisfying ending, and even stands on its own perfectly well. (There are a few loose plot threads, but by design: Queen is about Venera’s odyssey through Spyre, and not the larger drama throughout Virga.) Okay, the story does seem a bit roundabout when Venera stages her grand pose, but it’s all so much fun to read that I didn’t care a bit.

It’s Venera’s character arc which is worth deeper consideration: She arrives as the consummate manipulator, but deflated due to being separated from everything she knows, and with an understanding that her husband is dead. A couple of flashbacks provide insight into how she became the woman she is, but the events of Queen give her a deeper appreciation for loyalty and doing right by others who deserve it, making her an respectable figure with a sense of responsibility beyond simply that having married an admiral. Schroeder’s handling of characters has been rather bland in his novels to this point, so I’m hopeful that Queen indicates a breakthrough in his skills in this area.

Regardless, I’m eagerly looking forward to what comes next.

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