I was poking around Karl Schroeder’s website a little while ago and stumbled upon an old blog entry, which I think was written around the time Pirate Sun came out. I can’t seem to find it now, so I’m going from memory. Anyway, Schroeder wrote something about how fans had been saying, “the next book has to bring back Hayden Griffin” (the hero from the first book), and how he was worried because, in fact, he had gone (as usual) in a completely different direction. But then reviews started coming in and he knew he was all right.
In four books Schroeder has had four completely different main characters, in four completely different locales within Virga, with four completely different (immediate) plots. There’s a larger story, but Schroeder has almost been building it up by sonar. We’ve been getting a sense of larger, looming events by a series of glancing blows — collisions between our many protagonists and the greater story, as they pursue their own ends. But with Book Four, The Sunless Countries, one gets the distinct impression that we’re almost at the main event.
The hero in this not-quite-latest tale is one Leal Maspeth, Doctor of Philosophy in history, working as a university tutor in the sunless nation of Abyss. (I haven’t mentioned it previously, but when it comes to evocative place names, Schroeder can go toe-to-toe with any epic fantasy veteran. Abyss, Dreamweal, Spyre, and Slipstream — wow.)
Abyss may not have a sun, but its gas-lit streets and spotlit ships in port make it far from gloomy. Warm currents of air flow from the centre of the gas-filled balloon of Virga. The light of Candesce and lesser suns may fail before completing its journey, but the convection currents they create keep this nation of the Winter regions pleasant. With its thriving cultural scene and strong economy, Abyss sounds like any other city, save the lack of a rising sun.
But all is not well. Just beyond their doorstep, there is something ancient and incomprehensible that really is at home in the lightless deep. It’s gnawing at the edges of civilization and sanity. First ships, then entire towns disappear.
Leal is smart enough to read between the lines of newspaper propaganda and military denials. She also possesses knowledge of Virga’s ancient origins that just may be relevant. “Just as there was a time before man, there will be a time after …” says the voice in the dark, on the cusp of hearing.
There is another foreigner in her town — the famous sun-lighter, Hayden Griffin, resurrector of the nation of Aerie. He may not be the hero others have made him into. He rarely leaves his rented workshop, where he is building another sun. But he’s the only hero available.
Book Three was all action, but much of The Sunless Countries is taken up with painting a picture of the political and cultural reality of yet another brand-new nation. The ruling government party of Abyss holds up academics, especially historians, as scapegoats for all that is wrong with their country. A dark undercurrent of information control and carefully incited mob mentality undergird the the mystery of the missing ships and secret voices. The immediate concerns of job security and academic freedom take up much of the novel, even as Leal picks up hints of the darker threat.
This isn’t a criticism. It’s expertly done, fascinating in its own right, with relevant ties to the ancient monster plot. If there’s any criticism at all, it’s that Leal has less immediate reason to take on the responsibility of deciphering a mystery that few have even acknowledged, and even less expectation of succeeding. As a protagonist, she doesn’t always “protag” as much as one might like. For that matter, neither does Hayden Griffin, who has his own priorities, and his share of ghosts from the past.
You wouldn’t want to stop with this book. Having finally gotten to the big, world-in-peril plot that has been hinted at in between all the politics of nations in the books so far, you wouldn’t be satisfied after finishing this one. You could perhaps argue, then, that it is less successful as a standalone than some of the others. But then, one still always knew with each previous novel that it wasn’t the whole story. You can’t fault this one for being a bit more of an obvious set-up book for the finale.
The Sunless Countries is completely different from every previous Virga book, and, in one way, exactly the same: It tells exactly the story it means to tell, and takes us one step closer to the conclusion of this saga. And I’ll say as I’ve said before, I can’t wait to see how it all ends.
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.