So, what is vigra? Virga is a meteorological term referring to visible streaks of precipitation that evaporate before touching the ground. In contrast, Karl Schroeder’s world of Virga is much more interesting. It’s a structure similar to a Dyson sphere: 5,000 miles in diameter, warmed in part by a large artificial sun in the center called Cadesce, and filled with enough air and moisture to sustain life. The light of Candesce only reaches so far, however, and many nations cluster around their own, smaller suns. Where Virga really becomes interesting is it’s lack of real gravity. Towns, cities, and entire nations exist in freefall, making their own gravity with rotating wheel-towns. This makes a larger portion of the planet’s interior viable for habitation than, say, that of a Ringworld-type ring would have. The people in Virga use kerosene lanterns and jets to warm their homes and keep their wood-and-metal town-wheels spinning. Airships are similarly made out of wood and steel. It’s steam-punkish without the historical anachronism, and it’s a world filled with pure sensawunda. You can read more about the world by looking at this page and this page from Schroeder’s website, where he explains the world of Virga and has some helpful illustrations.
Following the harrowing events of the first book in the Virga series, Sun of Suns, the cunning Venera Fanning was floating lost in the airs of Virga until she landed in the crumbling remains of the massive cylindrical metropolis of Spire. Her adventures there covered the second book in the Virga series, Queen of Candesce. At the end of the first book, Venera’s husband Admiral Chaison Fanning had successfully prevented the pirate nation of Falcon Formation from destroying his home of Rush, but he was captured in the process. Pirate Sun picks up Chaison’s story. After being imprisoned and tortured, a jailbreak springs Chaison, a young member of his former flagship’s crew, and a former Rush ambassador into the endless reaches of Virga. Alone, friendless, and starving, they are rescued by a mysterious woman from the outer reaches of the world. This strange woman, who promises to lead Chaison and his companions through the hostile airs of Falcon Formation and back to their home nation of Rush, obviously has ulterior motives, but what choice does Chaison have? Their journey will be fraught with hazards, both natural and man-mae. There will be daring escapes, political intrigue, friends who become enemies, enemies who become friends, war, revolution, and the appearance of an advanced technological threat from the cold void of space that has finally, after many years of patience, breached Virga’s protective cordons.
What Pirate Sun Does Well
I’m currently averaging one of Shcroeder’s Virga books per year. There’s no reason for it, but one possible good thing about reading through this series so slowly is that I am continually dazzled by the literal world building. Virga’s lack of gravity compels its inhabitants to make their own by spinning large wheels or, as we see in this book, using more innovative rotational techniques to generate the centrifugal force necessary to generate some g-forces. This makes for some spectacular mind candy as Schroeder creates vertigo-inducing city-scapes made by giant, rotating wheels of wood and metal. Some of these cities are made of a single giant wheel, others are made of gigantic pinwheel arrangements of wheels, and many are migratory: they move about Virga. There is a spectacular battle scene later on in the book in which two towns go to war, merging into one another and letting the loser’s town become integrated into the winner’s. I could go on and on. To topi tall off, it’s all integrated well without resorting to too much heavy-handed exposition.
The inventiveness of the cities of Virga is matched by the innovation Schroeder gives its inhabitants, who have to find a way to live, work, and even fight in a constantly moving and shifting world. The ways characters constantly adjust to shifts in gravity, shifts in perspective, and to the requirements of living in a shifting world where they can see the other end of town by looking up (barf) makes the world feel lived-in and believable. Action scenes are good and once again provide nice mind-candy as they are driven by maneuvers in a three dimensional space where up can become down and turn back again in the blink of an eye. I get motion sick in cars and planes (not bad, but enough to make me uncomfortable), so I think I would be terrible at living in Virga. The tech in this world is steampunk-ish, and so there is a mix of gunfights, sword fights, and ship-to-ship dogfights. My first encounter with this kind of thinking about combat and maneuvering came from reading about Ender Wiggins teach his classmates how to win their zero-g wargame. Think of the fight scenes in the Virga series like Ender’s Game on crack.
Venera Fanning is one of my favorite female characters in SF, because she seems (to me at least) to resist easy stereotype. She is cunning and conniving on one hand, but sympathetic and very human on the other. Far from being an oil-and-water mix, it makes her character interesting to me. Her husband, Chaison, is the star of this novel, however, and I was afraid that I would quickly tire of his chivalric attitude, but he came across as honorable without being a bore. In the end I enjoyed his point of view, more-so than that of the new female character that was introduced (who had fairly cliched ulterior motives).
The tension and drama is built and paced well, and the novel engages the characters in engaging dilemmas regarding their principles and priorities. We get to learn more about just what the heck Virga is, who put it there, and why, and we get a glimpse of the larger game being played in the series with some chilling premonitions about what may be to come.
Where Pirate Sun could Have Been Better
I can see some readers tiring of Chaison’s goody-goody schtick. It didn’t bother me, and I found him to be a bit more complicated than I first anticipated, but I can see how it might bug some other readers who were hoping for a return to Venera.
The big plot, the larger arc of the series, begins to be revealed just a bit in this book, although I found the exposition regarding what Virga is to be confusing. It’s done via a weird mind-meld between one central character and something from outside Virga, and maybe it was the nature of the event but it seemed like a very fast and loose overview when I was hoping for something more concrete. I think I see what far-future speculation that Schroeder is shooting for, but I would have liked something more concrete. Perhaps he is trying to maintain an air of mystery about the whole thing so that he can still effectively tease the reader with premonitions and possibilities later on, but that whole part of the book left me feeling unsatisfied.
Overall, however, I was very happy with Pirate Sun. In his world of Virga, Schroeder has built a very dynamic setting that he can use as a rich toolbox for action, adventure, mind-boggling settings, and darn cool speculation. It had been a long time since I had read the second book in this series, but Pirate Sun did what I feel every sequel should do: present new experiences while reinvesting me in what attracted me to the series in the first place. I look forward to picking up the next installment.