Pirate Sun, Schroeder’s third outing in the Virga series, picks up the thread of Admiral Chaison Fanning, formerly of Slipstream. We last saw him at the close of the first book, making an ironically proper introduction to the officers of an enemy fleet after destroying their indestructible juggernaut, and his own flagship in the process. Now he’s a prisoner of war.
“They had provided him with two torturers today.” With this, perhaps one of the greatest opening lines in literary history, Schroeder sets the stage as quickly as possible, and then we are right in the thick of it. An action-packed jailbreak precedes a novel-length journey for home, through foreign lands, an ongoing war, and the machinations of a larger extra-terrestrial plot the Admiral’s only seen hints of.
Travelling from disaster to battle to more of the same, there’s little downtime in this novel, a set-up which has the potential to be exhausting, but Schroeder understands pacing and makes sure the characters and reader are able to breathe now and again.
The gas-filled balloon called Virga is a world of great diversity, and we’ve already seen how varied the customs and lifestyles can be in its various nations. Some citizens live under simulated gravity on the inner rims of spinning town-wheels. Others live in free fall on scattered farms that amount to drifting clods of dirt. Pirate Sun again takes us to a different part of the world, with different physical architecture, culture, and politics. These glimpses again reinforce the idea that there’s a great world out there and we just haven’t seen all of it yet.
This book also gives us yet more information about the larger universe outside Virga, and the insidious, von Neumann-like Artificial Nature that has infected apparently every part of it, though from a different perspective than we’ve seen previously. Most of these newer details come from a particular member of the Home Guard, a shadowy apolitical organization that is responsible for protecting Virga from outside forces, but keeps itself aloof from the world’s internal powers.
Certainly there’s a lot going on here, but the book never feels busy, rushed, or crowded. Schroeder stays on point, following the structure established in the first book of focusing on a single main character.
I’ve described the first and second books in the Virga series as a sort of dieselpunk Treasure Island and alien-world Julius Caesar, respectively. Now glancing over some of the blurbs for Pirate Sun, my eye is drawn to one bit of publisher copy in particular, proclaiming that “[T]he Three Musketeers meets The Odyssey” in the present adventure.
These comparisons are telling. I make a point not to actually read full reviews of books I’m covering, but even a cursory glance suggests no one is pigeon-holing Karl Schroeder or this series as the next this or that in speculative fiction. Virga isn’t Asimovian or McCaffreyesque. It’s Schroederian. No homage to world-building of fantasy or space opera past. Virga is something new in genre. But these books also have the feel of something familiar and ageless in the larger endeavour of storytelling. They’re great adventure tales with the sort of timeless archetypes we see throughout classic literature.
The ruthless and brilliant political schemer, the war orphan seeking redemption, the noble aristocrat chafing against his social straitjacket: Any of these stock characters, all introduced in the first book, could be just that. Schroeder turns each of them into real people. Chaison Fanning — and what a proper, upper-crust English name that is, too — sounds like he could be a real stuffed shirt. In fact he’s likeable, three-dimensional, and quite entertaining.
I applaud the decision to have a unique protagonist, each with their own relatively self-contained story and character arc, for each book in this series. Every tale thus far has been so fresh and each surprising hero so well-developed, it would be a great shame if we had missed out on any one of them in favour of more or the same.
There’s another reason to compare this Canadian gem to the likes of Robert Louis Stephenson, William Shakespeare, and Homer. The man just plain writes well. His prose is delectable, his characters are well-realized, his plot is compelling and driven forward in a plausible way by those same characters.
Wow this is a great series. Why haven’t I read it before? Why haven’t you?
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.