Few authors manage to win me over the way Karl Schroeder has done. After the mediocre Sun of Suns, Venera Fanning's con game in Queen of Candesce impressed me enough to do an almost complete about-face. So it was with eager anticipation that I started the third book in the Virga series, anxious to find out what will happen to Venera; her husband, Chaison; and the pirate sun builder, Hayden Griffin.
The world of Virga is always a factor in the action of Pirate Sun, but like Queen of Candesce its role is subtler and off centre-stage. Much of the plot revolves around protecting Virga from an incursion by Artificial Nature. However, until the climax of the story, Virga's role manifests natural as all the differences one would expect from living inside a massive fullerene sphere. I can never quite visualize the action (but I'm not very good at that with books set on Earth anyway), but I don't feel left behind. Schroeder never misses a beat in exploiting the unique nature of such a setting, but he doesn't let it become too overwhelming.
More disappointing are the characters. The jacket copy made it clear that Chaison was going to be the main protagonist, yet I hoped against all odds that Venera, when she figured in the prologue, would play a more pivotal role. She was won me over in Queen of Candesce. Alas, Chaison and Antaea are the focus of Pirate Sun, and neither of them are as interesting or profound as Venera. Chaison is not in the same intellectual weight-class as his wife. He is a brilliant military tactician, but his strategy is somewhat wanting. And, I don't know, he just seems a bit … dull, stodgy. Antaea is more intriguing, but like Chaison, she lacks a certain gumption that makes Venera a successful heroine. Antaea begins the story on a mission to rescue her sister, despite its possible cost to Virga. She never really seizes the day and steps up. In fact, as if Schroeder subconsciously recognizes what's missing from this story, Venera does play a small but significant part in the climax.
To an extent, Schroeder attempts to recreate the plot of the previous book. Like his wife, Chaison's struggle is one to return home to Slipstream. He has limited resources, plenty of enemies, and his allies have other commitments that could quickly become conflicts of interest. Where Venera's journey was about identity, Chaison's seems to concern duty and honour—and that's where it falls flat. Chaison et al have to traipse about Falcon for a while, seeking a means of escape. Along the way they get involved in a defence of Stormcloud, a Falcon city being threatened by another nation. Chaison becomes one of the leaders of a resistance, banding together with the people of Stormcloud and a circus strongman named Corbus. And unlike the delightful, complex con game that dominates the political landscape of Queen of Candesce, this part of Pirate Sun just feels so random.
So it's a good thing most of the book is fun. That doesn't excuse its flaws, but it mollifies my discontent. Also, Schroeder elaborates on the juxtaposition between technologically-primitive Virga and the Artificial Nature-dominated world outside. As foreshadowed in the previous books, Virga is both sanctuary and potential battlefield for the entities of Artificial Nature. One lifestyle is rough, unfettered, and often unjust. The other is austere, impersonal, and alien. Schroeder shows us why both approaches—absolute embrace of advanced technology and absolute rejection—are unsuitable. In the former, you lose yourself, your identity and your consciousness. In the latter, you lose freedoms, as well as devices that raise the quality of life.
When these two worlds collide, people begin taking sides. The home guard is charged with preserving the status quo. Others, including Antaea's group within the home guard, want to destroy the field that Candesce emits to inhibits computers. Some people, like Venera and Chaison, happily exploit what little they know to their own advantage, even though they don't have a particular desire to see Virga altered by the return of advanced technology. But the key to Candesce is, I suspect, much like Pandora's Box. We haven't seen the last of Artificial Nature.
Everything I read about the Virga series mentioned it was a trilogy, or at least strongly hinted that. Nothing told me to expect a fourth book. But when I finished Pirate Sun, I found myself wanting more—both because I didn't feel like everything was concluded, and because I had enjoyed the book. So I'm pleased to see that Schroeder has written a fourth book, and that Hayden Griffin figures more prominently in this one. Hayden's role as the mastermind behind Aerie's new sun is mentioned, but that's it. He doesn't even get a cameo. And although the ignition of Aerie's illicit sun is concurrent with the climax, the struggle to construct it all happens offstage. We don't see any of the setbacks, any of the resistance or obstacles that Hayden has to overcome.
That's the impression I get about the Virga series in general. It sounds like there's a lot of interesting stuff happening offstage. Pirate Sun is another great return to the unique world of Virga, but like the first book in this series, Schroeder's characterization and plot fail to live up to the great environment he has constructed for them. While the plot and politics do leave me wanting more, Pirate Sun also cooled somewhat my ardour toward Karl Schroeder. He's convinced me that he has big ideas about technology and humanity's future, created one of the most fascinating science-fiction environments I've ever encountered. I just wish his novels were as epic as that environment deserves.