Queen of Candesce: Book Two of Virga by Karl Schroeder

With Book Two of Virga, we pick up directly where we left off in the previous book, at least in one sense. But while the events of Queen of Candesce follow directly from Sun of Suns, its shift in focus to another character, a different setting, and new immediate plot concerns lend a freshness to this follow-up.

With Book Two of Virga, we pick up directly where we left off in the previous book, at least in one sense. But while the events of Queen of Candesce follow directly from Sun of Suns, its shift in focus to another character, a different setting, and new immediate plot concerns lend a freshness to this follow-up.

Writers of planetary colonization tales long ago found that a frontier setting meant they could write cowboy stories while still having cool things like rocket ships. Likewise, Schroeder has contrived a narrative set-up that could only result in airships, pirates, and tiny, asteroidal fiefdoms — resulting in a weird mix of old and new sensibilities.

The action in Queen of Candesce takes place within a rotating cylinder some tens of kilometres across called Spyre. This self-enclosed — let’s say continent — houses thousands of people divided amongst dozens of petty nations spread over a total land area small enough to cross by foot. And this cylindrical country is vast compared to the town-sized planetoids that prevail in most of Schroeder’s larger world.

There’s no exact analogue for Virga to be found in Earth’s history. A place like Spyre might be compared to a pre-unified Britain, yet with ships being the dominant mode of travel, political and technological comparisons could be made to the Age of Exploration. There are new worlds being discovered, colonized, and fought over; frontier justice; piracy on the high seas; and multiple empires bumping into each other as each realizes its own destiny to rule the world.

In this context, the first book focused more on the exotic locales and adventure of that exciting age, while the second draws its inspiration from the politics of nations of the same time period. If Sun of Suns was sci-fi Treasure Island, with elements of coming-of-age, saving the day, and finding the long-lost pirate hoard, then Queen of Candesce is Henry VIII or Julius Caesar. The first book had a pirate’s map, chaotic ship battles, and a beautiful, morose lost city. Its sequel has political bribery and blackmail, debates over anarchist philosophy, and life or death council votes. It’s a tale of intrigue and courtly politics, unlikely alliances and sudden reversals of fortune.

A primary mover of these shake-ups is our new main protagonist, Venera Fanning, who straddled the line between anti-hero and outright villain in the previous book. By the end of that novel, she had saved the day, endured great suffering, and casually murdered a dozen of her own comrades in the service of either her mission or her own political ambitions — it’s not clear which. Thanks to her brutal and selfish pragmatism, we didn’t much sympathize with her point of view in Sun of Suns. Even those scenes written from her perspective didn’t do much to get us on her side, despite the fact that she was ostensibly with the good guys.

But we get much deeper into Venera’s emotional space this time around. Her outlook is the product of a life in court where the murder of a noble daughter is an acceptable political tactic. Yes, she is ruthless, but not malicious. It might seem a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one. She is a damaged survivor but her human side is not irredeemable.

The first two volumes of Virga are complementary brush strokes helping to paint a picture of a larger whole, and while one book flows fluidly into another, each works as a separate entity. You might see Queen of Candesce in particular as a sort of bite-sized version of the sprawling hundred-character epics of political fantasy. By bite-sized, I don’t mean that it’s Game of Thrones Lite — the depth is there, but the approach is different. Instead of sustaining a dozen parallel narrative threads at once, the Virga series has so far been sticking to a tight, over-the-shoulder perspective of one main protagonist for the majority of each book. We know there are larger forces moving, we know that all these separate plots will come together in the end, but we only focus on one at a time.

It’s also true in a more literal sense that Queen of Candesce is a war epic cast in miniature. The myriad nations of the rotating world of Spyre are, in point of fact, merely hundreds or even dozens of persons strong. Imagine a world war between nations the size of small weddings. Though we sometimes forget that nations in historical times were often measured in thousands rather than millions, the great empires of past centuries were certainly still bigger than this.

Yet again we find ourselves in unknown territory, wherein Schroeder has imagined a world that is so utterly unique, it defies comparison. We lack the landmarks of any sort of well-worn narrative trail, so while comparisons and evocations can be made, Book Two of Virga is something you really need to read for yourself.

 


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.

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