You can tell that Ashes of Candesce is a series finale. The heroes of the four previous books all come together for the first time. The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. And almost every dangling plot thread, including some from the very first book, is finally tied off. If you weren’t entirely sure if the saga was finished or not, the book is capped with an epilogue for good measure.
This final entry in Karl Schroeder’s Virga series was released last year, and if it had been humanly possible, I would have raced through the earlier books so I could cover the new one just as it came out. But it wasn’t humanly possible. So I shelved it until I was ready to shoehorn a not-quite-half-dozen books into my reading schedule.
And the experience has been … immersive. The set-up of Virga follows the best traditions of early hard sci-fi in the careful working out of a situation’s physical implications. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Farmer in the Sky still work today because even though they were written before humankind had experienced much of space first-hand, the authors’ grasps of Newtonian physics were sound.
Nothing like the gravity-free, gas-filled world of Virga has existed in human history, but Schroeder has likewise thought it out thoroughly, from the wheel-shaped towns whose spin simulates the gravity human bodies crave, to great navies whose vehicles combine elements of wooden sailing ships, space ships, and submarines. In a world without gravity, a person can be stranded in still air, although a pair of foot fins will allow for some high-exertion swimming in a pinch.
But the Virga series also exemplifies the type of world-building most often showcased in social science fiction or high fantasy. Easily on a par with China Mieville’s New Crobuzon or Anne McCaffrey’s Pern in its intricacies, the fictional Virga is likewise a living thing. Its many nations have their own cultures and political systems, which are detailed and complex. But Schroeder’s universe is as sensible as it is unfamiliar. If humanity were to build such a place, it’s easy to believe that society would unfold much as the author has predicted.
It’s also clear from the structure of this series that the man has no patience for redundancy. With each new book he introduces new characters or promotes a former member of the supporting cast to the spotlight. Each new adventure is relatively self-contained already (though each book advances a larger story), but the fresh character perspective of each book makes them even moreso. It’s clear that once he’s taken his protagonists through their novel-length story arc, Schroeder’s more interested in getting to know someone new rather than giving his old stand-bys “one more adventure.”
Ashes of Candesce has more of an ensemble cast than previous volumes, with two or three main characters and a larger but manageable supporting cast. One of the mains is Keir Chen, also notable as the first actual protagonist to come from outside Virga. He’s introduced near the beginning of the book, an apparent adolescent living in the cliffside city of Brink just outside the world’s skin, and can recall life on an actual gravity-bound planet. More importantly, he understands and is native to the realm of Artificial Nature.
The mysterious force/realm/culture of AN has been discussed, sometimes obliquely, from book one. Ashes finally shows us something of how the non-Virgans live, both in the present narrative, and in flashbacks by Keir Chen. It’s tantalizing to finally get more than a glimpse, if only a little more.
Antaea, a recurring character from Pirate Sun and former member of the shadowy Home Guard organization, also takes a prominent role in the final adventure. Her character is trying to find meaning in the aftermath of the traumatic events of that earlier book as the final AN conspiracy against Virga unfolds. One of the few Virgans with the opportunity to travel outside her world, she brings her own perspective, both afraid of and intrigued by the technological possibilities of the wider universe.
What about the rest? Schroeder brings all his previous heroes back for the final act, but even now, the story isn’t about them. They have important roles to play, but much of their contribution occurs off-stage, as we are always viewing the action from someone else’s perspective.
It’s certainly a lot easier — having created a likeable, well-realized hero — to just throw the same protagonist back into the action, again and again, perhaps contriving to find new emotional challenges so they can exhibit some token character growth. Easier, too, to tell an unfolding story in a linear and somewhat local way, rather than as a selection of diverse adventures subtly designed to fit into a greater whole.
Schroeder isn’t doing easy, though. He’s doing fresh. He’s doing different. In the end, he manages to fit in one more perspective, one more emotional arc, and one more piece of this epic sci-fi puzzle just as its shape finally coalesces. The result is a worthy and fitting end to a truly impressive work of series fiction, and a solid tale in its own right.
Bravo, Mr. Schroeder. Bravo.
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Green Man Review, Library Journal, and Care2. He also maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.