Full Weekend

We’re finishing up a full weekend around here.

Friday night we got together with our friends Chad and Camille for dinner at Cascal, the popular tapas restaurant downtown which we finally discovered a few months ago. C&C used to live in Mountain View, but moved further into the valley around the time I moved here, so we also walked around downtown so they could see what had changed since they were last here.

Saturday I got a much-needed haircut, and then we met up with Subrata and Susan for lunch, Magic and dominoes. Subrata and I played some more Shadowmoor-Eventide sealed deck, and our games took quite a while since we each kept drawing most of our removal and other tricky spells, so we had lots of maneuvering to do. I eventually prevailed 2 games to 1 with my white-blue deck over his black-red deck. Ironically, I put together my own black-red deck which had most of my rares in it – my blue-white deck had none – but didn’t get to play it. I’m not sure it would have been very consistent anyway.

Today we had a relatively lazy day, watching football and the James Bond film License to Kill (1989), the Dalton film I hadn’t seen before. It’s not as bad as I’d feared, but it’s lackluster at best. The acting is often atrocious, with Dalton a shining star next to anyone – indeed, everyone – else.

The painting around here is just about done, so I put the furniture back on the upstairs porch. I’ll move the plants back there over the next week or so. I’m so glad it’s nearly over. It’s been quite a haul to get it all done. (I’m sure the painter feels the same way times ten. I think it’s been a bigger job than he expected. It looks like he did a really good job, though!)

One good anecdote before I finish up: This past week I was sitting for my friend Josh’s cats. (He and his fiancée went to Hawaii, the lucky ducks.) Thursday night I went up to find his one cat who usually hangs out under the bed. Sure enough, there he was, and I went around to the other side to pet him and coax him out. While I rubbed his chin I looked to the side, and…

…well, I went downstairs and said to Debbi, “Either Josh has the most realistic cat toy ever, or there’s a dead sparrow under his bed.”

Sure enough, it was a dead sparrow – still warm, even – and I threw it outside. I suspect it came into one of the enclosed porches somehow – one with a cat door leading out to it – and one of the cats dispatched it and brought it inside to, uh, enjoy. Fortunately, it was still basically intact, rather than being a mess. I sent Josh a text message and he replied that he was sorry I had to deal with that, but that he thinks it’s happened once before.

The things we put up with for our furry friends!

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.