Karl Schroeder: Pirate Sun

Last time we saw Admiral Chaison Fanning, he had successfully defeated the fleet of Falcon Formation thanks to his wife Venera managing to shut down Candesce, the sun of the artificial system Virga, which actively suppresses certain technologies within the system. That was at the end of the first volume Sun of Suns, and in this third volume, we catch up with Fanning who is in ongoing interrogation in a Falcon prison. (The second volume follows Venera’s adventures.)

Someone breaks Fanning out of prison, along with two companions from his home nation of Slipstream: The young man Darius Martor, and the former ambassador Richard Reiss. But rather than hooking up with their benefactor, they’re picked up by Antaea Argyre, a member of the Home Guard, a mysterious group dedicated to preventing things from outside the balloon – the forces of what’s referred to as Artificial Nature – from getting in. The four of them hide out on a city in Falcon and spend much of the book playing cat-and-mouse with Falcon’s police forces – who are being aided by Slipstream’s people, since Fanning has been declared a traitor for attacking Falcon in defiance of Slipstream’s Pilot – while gradually making their way back to Slipstream.

I didn’t see how Schroeder was going to top the second volume in the Virga series, Queen of Candesce, which was full of exotic wondrousness set around a compelling central character in Venera Fanning. And indeed, Schroder doesn’t top it, but Pirate Sun is still a very good book.

The book is divided into three parts, the first involving the escape from prison and search for safe haven; the second an effort to defend the Falcon city of Stonecloud from being taken over by the rival nation of Gretel; and finally the party returning to Slipstream and dealing with a complicated situation there. The book’s biggest problem is that the first two parts are mostly a big lead-in to the third part, and much of it feels superfluous, especially the second part. The second part could have been much more interesting: The notion of a city in free-fall absorbing another city, and the tactics that might bs used in defense of that city, is pretty interesting, and the man leading the defense – an enhanced strongman – is also pretty interesting. But the battle rather splutters out at the end, and it felt like all the build-up had no pay-off.

The first two parts mostly serve to build up the subplots which pay off in the third part, but the structure of a running chase sequence makes those parts feel thin. There is some well-executed sense of wonder throughout it, regarding the tactics that Gretel uses to attack Falcon, but it’s not quite enough to carry the story.

The crux of the story involves Antaea, who latches on to Fanning in hopes of finding the Key to Candesce, which Venera used to shut down the sun in the first book. But the reason she’s interested has to do with what the Home Guard had to deal with during the brief outage. As a result, we learn what Artifical Nature is (and it’s cool! But frightening!) and why the book is entitled Pirate Sun (which is less cool – titles are not the series’ strong suit).

As a protagonist, Chaison is okay, but a lot less interesting than his wife. He’s sort of like Captain Sheridan in Babylon 5: A hugely competent leader with a strong sense of morality, whose sense of the right thing to do pits him against his own government, but makes him a hero to some of his subordinates. This means Fanning spends a lot of time agonizing over whether he’s done the right thing in following his instincts, but unable to reach closure until he gets back to Slipstream. Fortunately, his take-charge attitude serves him and his companions well in dealing with the challenges along the way. But his conflicts and character arc are far more vanilla than those of his more complex wife.

The story really takes off in the third part, when we meet the Pilot of Slipstream, who is both hugely annoying and yet quite capable in his own area of expertise (that being politics). With the Pilot and Antaea working against him, as well as two other interested parties who show up for the finale, Chaison has quite a minefield to navigate, and Schroeder pulls it all off adroitly, almost making up for the shortcomings of the earlier parts.

The book’s ending has an unusual quality about it: It’s not clear to me whether it’s the end of the story or not. If Schroeder decides to leave Virga as a trilogy, then that works well enough, but there also seems to be plenty of additional territory to explore, and a rich world to mine for more material. (And unless I missed something, we never did learn the origin of the bullet that hit Venera years ago.) In either case, Virga stands right now as Schroeder’s best work, a mix of cool ideas and traditional adventure storytelling adding up to really good stuff, just as challenging as his earlier books while being better written to boot. I look forward to what he comes up with next.

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