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.

An Unusual Day Off

I’m home today on a sick day – even though I’m not sick. No, I’m not abusing the system: Debbi had oral surgery this morning, the second of three she’s having this year. The first was to remove her wisdom teeth and a baby tooth that never came out, the second is a bone graft to build up the jaw under the removed baby tooth, and the third will add an implant to replace the removed baby tooth.

Since she’s being put under for these surgeries, she can’t drive herself to and from the surgeon, so I drive here there and back, and then I stick around for the afternoon to make things easier for her during her first day back, when she’s in the most pain and probably the most exhausted as her body gets over the shock. And taking care of a family member is a legitimate reason to take a sick day.

Debbi really hates going to the dentist, but we have a terrific dentist (who came highly recommended, and to whom we’ve sent many of our friends), and her oral surgeon – she says – is just as good. So she’s been very brave going through all of this. I think the experience has not been as bad as she’s feared; it’s not pleasant, but she’s able to take care of herself after the first day. She’s taking most (maybe all) of the week off anyway. She’ll certainly be out through Thursday, based on how the first surgery went. It’s just a lot to recover from. Plus she has to stick to liquid and then soft foods for several weeks, which might be the worst part of the whole thing. Over the weekend we stocked up on yogurt and fruits to make smoothies.

It’s sometimes hard to believe that those tiny things in our mouths can require so much care and be so expensive to care for, and yet we certainly want to keep them in good working order.

Anyway, Debbi’s on the couch listening to a book-on-CD through the stereo (she’s finishing up the Sue Grafton mysteries). She’ll probably be zonked until the evening. I’ve been puttering around and keeping the cats more-or-less entertained (they’d probably tell you “less”, but they are unreliable witnesses and are not to be trusted).

Couldn’t ask for a nicer day to take it easy, though: It’s sunny and about 70 out right now, with an occasional breeze. I might go read up on the porch this afternoon.

Cucumber Sandwiches

The garden’s going well this year: We’ve harvested our first two dozen tomatoes this weekend, and we picked our second cucumber.

My favorite thing to do with cucumbers is to make cucumber sandwiches, as follows:

  1. Remove crusts from white bread and cut into squares. I’ve been using Orowheat County White bread, which I cut with a large bread knife.
  2. Spread little dollops of mayonnaise on one side of each slice and place the slices on a serving tray.
  3. Peel the cucumber and cut into slices. Put each slice on a piece of bread.
  4. Shake salt and pepper on top of the finished sandwiches.
  5. If making more than one layer, put wax paper between the layers.
  6. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
  7. Consume greedily.

They’re not true “sandwiches” since they have only one square of bread each. But who cares? Also: Eat them the same day you make them, because the bread gets soggy if you leave them overnight. Ick.

But meanwhile, yummmmmm:


This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 11 July 2007.

  • Countdown #42 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Sean McKeever, Tony Bedard, Carlos Magno, Mark McKenna & Jay Leisten (DC)
  • Fables #63, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham and Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • Justice Society of America #7, by Geoff Johns, Dale Eaglesham, Ruy José and Rodney Ramos (DC)
  • Nova #4, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Sean Chen, Scott Hanna, & Brian Denham (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: Garden of Souls #5 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)

Chris Sims thinks the current Fables storyline might be its best yet, and I think he’s on to something: “The Good Prince” is turning out to be quite excellent, and you can just tell that it’s not going to end well (Willingham isn’t exactly Mr. Happy when it comes to his storylines). The book went through a bit of a lull when Bigby Wolf and Snow White were off-panel, since they’re the heart of the series, but this storyline combines a large scope with small character bits, and you can’t ask for more than that. Fables has been one of the best comics published for years now, and though it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, it’s definitely a must-check-out.

JSA #7 is getting more attention in the blogosphere due to Crotchgate than anything else. The series otherwise continues to be solidly middle-of-the-road: Enjoyable but uninspiring stories, solid but unexceptional artwork, not much in the way of direction. It feels overall more like the 1980s series All-Star Squadron more than anything else, only not quite as good on any front.

Nova #4Nova is taking a few months out to cross over with Annihilation: Conquest. While the art is excellent (Brian Denham does a great Sean Chen impression on the pages he fills in on), I worry that it’s going to lose the great character bits that made the first three issues so good. On the other hand, the issue ends on a cliffhanger that suggests Abnett and Lanning are taking an intriguing way to take a time out from the regular series. So it might all work out.

I still can’t get over just how good Chen’s artwork is, though. How has Marvel not put in the effort to turn this guy into their biggest star?

On the one hand, the B.P.R.D. chain of mini-series is taking forever to develop its ongoing storyline. On the other hand, some of the detours are pretty entertaining, and this is one of them: An ancient cadre of scientists with a plan to change the world, and a connection to Abe Sapien’s past life. I often think of giving up on B.P.R.D., but it’s still entertaining and pretty consistent, so I keep reading.

At the Halfway Point

Time to check in with how everyone’s doing in the Major Leagues, much as I did after the first week of the season. Take a look at the All-Star Break standings, and read on:

The Good:

  • Can anyone catch the Red Sox? With a 10-game cushion, it seems unlikely, although it’s never wise to entirely count out the Yankees. The Sox have had their troubles – J.D. Drew has been awful, Curt Schilling is hurt – but they’re still in a comfortable place.
  • The Tigers, Indians, Angels and Mariners are within 2.5 games of each other, and only 3 of them can go to the playoffs. I expect the Mariners will get exposed as the season goes on, but the other three are genuinely good teams.
  • The class of the National League is, uhh… no one. The NL looks like a strong, balanced league this year. The Padres have the best record (also by a nose), but there are eight teams within 6 games of them, including 3 in their own division – that’s more than half the league within easy striking distance, and only four of them can make the playoffs. I figure the Brewers will still win the Central, and the other three teams will come from the Mets, Braves, Padres and Dodgers – I think I’d pick the Braves to be the odd-team-out at this point.

The Bad:

As I said before, I think it’s a lot harder to overcome a bad start than to lose a good one, and halfway through the season that means the bad teams are just about out of it now:

  • The Nationals are bad. We knew that. Let’s move on.
  • The Astros are on their way down, after a decade of success and a World Series appearance. It may be a few years before they return to contention, but their fans have to be pretty happy with what they’ve gotten in the recent past – except for the lack of a title.
  • I wonder if the Reds know what they’re doing? They threw away Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns last year and now have a middling offense and bad pitching.
  • And then there are the Giants, which consist of 42-year-old Barry Bonds and his pursuit of the career home run record, and… uh… Barry Zito’s large contract, and… Matt Morris is having a pretty good year, and… geez… But seriously, like the Astros, the Giants are paying the price for years of excellence and a World Series appearance (which they, too, didn’t win), but the Giants’ flameout is going to be more dramatic and probably more prolonged. The Rockies don’t suck this year, so the Giants are going to finish last in their division, and despite the team signing GM Brian Sabean to a 2-year extension, it wouldn’t surprise me if he doesn’t survive the off-season.

The Rest:

  • The Phillies overcame their 1-5 start and are now at .500. They’re not a good team, though: Their offense is good and their pitching is bad, and they tossed Brett Myers into the bullpen for no good reason and then he got hurt. The Phils have been directionless for years, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
  • Up-and-coming teams? They’re already here: I think the Brewers are probably going to win their divison, the Diamondbacks are probably a year or two away, and the Indians need to figure out the rest of their rotation to have staying power. But all three are contending right now, and all of them could continue to do so into the fall.

I think the Wild Card sucks a lot of drama out of the season (even if it was partly responsible for the Red Sox winning it all in 2004), but there are enough good teams this year that there could still be some great races into September. Really, no one looks like a clear favorite to go to the World Series – even the Red Sox look great mainly by comparison with the rest of their division.

Why Terrorism Doesn’t Work

Bruce Schneier summarizes an article on correspondent inference theory and why it helps explain why terrorism doesn’t work: Basically, because targets and observers of terrorism tend to believe that the object of terrorism is to kill people, rather than as a means to political goals, and therefore they disregard those goals when deciding how to react to the terrorists.

I’ve been enjoyed Schneier’s blog for several years now. I think what I enjoy about it is that although it’s a blog about security (in many forms), much of it concerns motivations: Why people act the way they do, and how their behaviors lead to interesting security issues and trade-offs. The principles that arise in the blog often seem appropriate in other avenues of life, or at least they’re worth keeping in mind.

This is analogous to why I feel my baseball fandom of the last 15 years has been not just fun, but useful: It’s given me a better understanding of statistics, and – maybe more importantly – a recognition that humans are very bad at recognizing statistical patterns without doing in-depth analysis. That’s definitely been a lesson I’ve been able to apply elsewhere.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 5 July 2007.

I couldn’t wait for Wednesday, so I went and picked up last week’s comics last night. I walked in on the gang processing thousands of comics they’d just bought. I told them I expected the store to be spotless when I came back on Wednesday. Good thing they like me, ’cause they outnumbered me.

  • All-Star Superman #8, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (DC)
  • Countdown #43 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Manuel Garcia, David Lopez, & Don Hillsman (DC)
  • Welcome to Tranquility #8, by Gail Simone, Neil Googe, Jason Pearson, Chriscross, & Georges Jeanty (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Ms. Marvel #17, by Brian Reed, Aaron Lopresti & Matt Ryan (Marvel)
  • Thor #1, by J. Michael Straczynski Oliver Coipel & Mark Morales (Marvel)

Both Greg Burgas and Chris Sims were disappointed in this month’s All-Star Superman, and I’m with them: Devoid of the madcap zaniness of the classic Bizarro stories, saddled by the bleak imagery of Quitely’s artwork, and with nothing particularly deep or insightful to say about the Bizarro world, the whole issue just feels like a pointless aside to the already rather loosely-assembled story which comprises the series. All-Star Superman has certainly had its high points, but this is its nadir.

Ms. Marvel #17 actually has enough stuff in it to get me interested again: A.I.M. undergoes a transformation, Ms. Marvel turns blue and speaks with a different voice and then wakes up normal and has no idea what happened, her S.H.I.E.L.D. team is decimated and she faces a crisis of confidence, her would-be boyfriend is up to something, and a couple of A.I.M. wackos concoct an odd-looking scheme which is surely not going to end well.

If only the first 16 issues had had this much story. I just hope all this goes somewhere over the next few months.

And lastly:

J. Michael Straczynski’s comic books drive me crazy.

There’s always the germs of some really excellent stuff in there: The metaphysical underpinnings of Spider-Man’s powers. The spot-on handling of Peter Parker’s wit. The complex world of Rising Stars. The characterization of the Thing.

But Jesus, his stories take so-fricking-long to develop. It took years for the relatively-simple story of Spidey’s powers to play out, and while that stuff was really good, the stuff in between wasn’t. Fantastic Four never really went anywhere (but arguably got shanghaied by Civil War). And along the way he often hits as many wrong notes as true ones: The inevitable-yet-tedious battle for domination in Rising Stars, or the stilted and cringeworthy characterization of Mr. Fantastic. Really, only Midnight Nation – probably his most personal book – worked all the way through.

Thor brings the god-turned-hero back to the Marvel Universe after an absence due to, well, I really neither know nor care what happened to him, but apparently the other Norse gods are gone, and Thor is back to being bonded with Donald Blake. Straczynski provides some interesting theoretical backbone to Thor’s return and the nature of godhood, and some nice grounding to Blake’s humanity. And then, the questions lurking in the background are just as interesting: What will Thor think about the Civil War that occurred in his absence, and the role his closest human friend – Iron Man – played in it? How will Donald Blake pick up the pieces of his life after years of absence?

But the book noodles all over the place, starting with someone (Blake?) picking up Thor’s hammer in the middle of the desert (a scene set up in Straczynski’s Fantastic Four run), followed by a lengthy encounter between Blake and Thor in the limbo they’ve been lingering in for the last few years, followed by their return to Earth. But it’s all set-up: There’s hardly any actual story here. Straczynski’s Supreme Power played out excruciatingly slowly (I gave up after two depressing years), and I worry that that’s what’s going to happen here.

Still, it’s a first issue, and it’s got some promise. And Coipel’s art gets prettier with each new project: Remember how quirky and grim his style seemed back in Legion Lost, with those severe, undifferentiated faces? Oh yeah, he’s come a long way, that never would have worked on Thor. But as with most comics these days, I just hope that Straczynski’s got a plan, and that Thor is going to go somewhere. Because this sort of meandering will get boring by about issue #3. I also hope he lightens up on the gravitas a little (and boy is it unusual for me to be wishing a book were a little lighter), because it often feels like his books should have a funeral dirge as their soundtrack.

Greg Burgas seems to agree, but says so in fewer words than I do. So, there you go.

Workin’ Vacation

Last year we took a long weekend trip to Portland and returned the night of the Fourth of July. This year I suggested we turn it around, flying up on the Fourth so we could catch the fireworks in the evening, and then have a vacation in Portland with our friend Karen.

We flew in Wednesday afternoon. Karen threw a barbecue party in the late afternoon, with us, her mother, sister, and some friends coming by. I was elected grillmaster, and did my best with Karen’s charcoal grill. Well, okay, it wasn’t the grill’s fault, it was fine; I just have a gas grill at home, so when I do use charcoal I always have to remember just how it all works. This time around, I should have left the grill uncovered so the coals could breathe and heat up. Instead they just sort of smouldered for a while. I was actually able to get everything cooked through, it just took about twice as long as it should have. Go me!

But seriously, we all had a good time, and the food was good. Can’t ask any fairer than that.

Thursday we had a quiet day: Karen went to work for a bit, since she had an appointment, and Debbi and I hung around at home. When Karen came back, we worked to get her wi-fi set up.

So here’s the thing: I have this habit of visiting Karen shortly after she moves. I think this is the fourth time in seven years. Go figure. No, I don’t help her unpack, but I do help her with some projects around the house. It’s fun, really: I feel like I get some things done, and leave her house in better shape than when I arrived.

Back to her wi-fi: Last time I set it up she had DSL. This time she has Comcast cable. I figured: It’s a modem, it probably works just the same. And it almost does, except for one thing: The modem apparently records the MAC address (nothing to do with Apple, it’s the built-in identifier for the ethernet card) of the device it’s plugged into, and in order to plug it into a different device you have to power-cycle the modem. Which would be fine (if stupid) if Comcast actually told us this, but in fact it came with no documentation, and their help line wasn’t much help, either. So a 5-minute project turned into a 40-minute project. Sheesh.

Anyway, we did get the wi-fi set up, and I didn’t even have to reset the base station. Woo-hoo!

Friday we hit a couple of my favorite places in Portland: Fat Albert’s breakfast cafe (home of awesome biscuits and gravy), and of course Powell’s books.

In the evening we went to a baseball game, the Portland Beavers hosting the Tacoma Rainiers. Ah, minor league baseball, even of the AAA variety. The Beavers – the Padres’ affiliate – is a pretty weak team these days, staffed with some borderline prospects and some decent backup or former Major Leaguers. The Rainiers features some guys who look like real prospects, like Jeff Clement and this guy, Adam Jones:

(click to view full-sized)

The game was a laffer from early on and the Rainiers won 10-4. We did get to see some nuns watching the game from some good seats, but I’m sure you’re more interested in seeing us enjoying the game:


When I say this was a “working vacation”, I mean the projects I undertook around the house, and mostly those were Saturday and Sunday. We picked up some shelves which I installed in the bathroom:


And some flowers which I planted in pots on the front porch:


And tomato plants and herbs which went in the back yard:


The owner of the house had planted some heirloom tomatoes, some of which self-seeded, so Karen’s got some mystery tomato plants lurking around, and who knows what those will produce! But I caged several of them, so she’ll get a chance to find out.

In between it all I was able to make a run to Excalibur Comics, and Saturday evening we met my friend J.D. and his wife Kris for dinner and dessert. We had a great time, like we did last year. I got to ask J.D. what the size of a medium box is. Less flippantly, we talked comics (I’m scandalized that J.D. is going digital with his comics reading), Magic (he used to play, too – in fact, his period of playing almost exactly covers my time away from the game), and various other things. A nice, relaxing evening.

I even surprised everyone by eating a clam!

I think the vacation was about a day too short, as I would have enjoyed one day of just lying around or going to see some sights. But Sunday afternoon we headed to the airport (okay, after one more trip to Fat Albert’s) and came home. The cats were very happy to see us, although Roulette expressed her unhappiness by avoiding me all evening.

But she forgave me eventually!

Mixed Blessing

I’m enjoying my return engagement with Magic: The Gathering lately, but it is sometimes a drag to have to organize draft sessions, and although I could conceivably go play at a nearby store, I doubt Debbi would want me vanishing for, say, every other Friday evening to do so.

So then, there’s Magic Online, which supports drafts and constructed and all that good stuff. So I could conceivably play while sitting around watching baseball or having a quiet afternoon.

Except, of course, according to the FAQ it’s not supported on the Mac. So I’d need to run Windows to play it. And besides my fundamental distaste for Windows, I don’t want to lay out money to get Windows just to be able to play Magic.

Besides which, I could probably spend a lot of money and time there, both of which are arguably better spent elsewhere. At least playing Magic with actual cards is a social activity.


On the bright side, Starcraft II is going to be released for both Mac and PC. And it’s probably at least a year out (no release date has been announced), so sinking time into it is not imminent.