I read Karl Schroeder's Sun of Suns almost a year ago and liked it but didn't love it. Queen of Candesce, in addition to standing by itself, has made me wonder if I was uncharitable to the first book. I honestly enjoyed Queen of Candesce every step of the way.
There is no question that Schroeder's Virga is a fabulous example of world-building. But it was so obvious in the first book, so overt, that at times it overwhelmed the story. That isn't the case here. Virga still plays an important role, but it's one that is integrated better into the story itself, which is really a political one.
Schroeder shows us that he can do more than describe a different type of world and drop people with steampunkesque technology and politics into that setting. Spyre is an example of how human politics has adjusted to the unique attributes of living on a wheel inside of fullerene sphere. There's an entire faction of conservation engineers devoted only to keeping Spyre intact, never mind politics. There are rebels who want "emergent government," something that Venera thinks won't work by dint of how Virga itself was designed. And hovering behind everything, there's the sinister but poorly-understood threat of "Artificial Nature." (I'm just now realizing what an oxymoron the phrase itself is, never mind what it denotes.)
Venera Fanning, who was more of antagonist in the first book, is a delectable protagonist. She lands in the nation of Spyre, which is more of a collection of micro-nations on two massive wheels near Candesce. With no previous knowledge of Spyre's politics or culture, she manages to inveigle her way into society, pull a con, and begin building her resource base. Her goal is to have the resources to return to Slipstream with a fleet and take revenge for her husband's death. But as Venera builds power in Spyre, she starts to make allies, even friends, and much to her dismay, develops a conscience.
I described Venera in my review of Sun of Suns as "a fun but ruthless antagonist." She's fun but ruthless here as well. She's fun because she gives every gambit everything she has; Venera is not just an action hero but an intelligent action hero who, once she has decided upon a course of action, commits to it whole-heartedly. She's ruthless because, at least at first, she doesn't care about how much of Spyre she has to destabilize (physically or politically) to get back home. Even when she displays loyalty to her new companions, like Garth, she never develops the same loyalty for Spyre or its people. Venera is always the outsider, driven by the goals that define her.
That's the deeper part of the story. We learn early on that Venera cares about only two possessions: the key to Candesce and the mysterious bullet that broke her jaw. Both are important to the plot, but they are more important to Venera as a character. Venera's accident with the bullet has formed the core of her personality, especially now that she believes her husband is dead: one of her reasons for staying alive is to find the origin of that bullet. But if she solves that mystery, who then does she become?
It's this question of identity that is central to Queen of Candesce. Venera has the opportunity to become the "botanist" of a small cherry-growing nation called Liris, but she doesn't. She instead cedes the position to someone more qualified, then returns to Greater Spyre in order to start anew and try to find a way to escape Spyre itself. Later, she assumes the identity of Amandera Thrace-Guilles, last heir of the sequestered nation of Buridan. Like any good con artist, she must become Amandera in order to dupe her marks (the entire council of Spyre, in this case). It's interesting to watch Venera try to juggle her two identities and watch the reactions of people based on who they think Venera is.
Maybe I just have a weakness for stories wrapped around con games, but Venera's deception makes Queen of Candesce just plain fun. Often she miscalculates, makes a mistake, and has to think on her feet, compromise, and come up with a new plan. But once in a while, one of Venera's plans works out, and every time that happened I just squealed in delight. I'm not sure if Sun of Suns deserves more credit than I originally gave it, but reading it was worth it just to get to this book. Here, Schroeder melds the massive scope of Virga with the minute scope of human lives. And now I know that if Venera Fanning is ever around, I want to be on her side.