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Pirate Sun: Book Three of Virga by Karl Schroeder
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765315458
Date: 05 August 2008 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Review by Tom Easton / Show Official Info /

In the third, but by no means final, book in Karl Schroeder's Virga saga set in a zero gee bubble of gas and heated by an artificial sun, Admiral Chaison Fanning, imprisoned by the country he attacked to stop a strike against his own, breaks out and takes it on the lam with a girl straight out of anime. Schroeder mixes action, character, and political thought with creativity and aplomb, providing more than a good read for everyone from Hornblower fans to readers of the Economist, not that these are mutually exclusive, of course.

Note: This review goes fairly far into the story, but we don't think it spoils the plot.

Schroeder's Virga saga is one of the best SF stories I've had the pleasure of reading, and takes place in one of the most delightfully strange places I've seen imagined. In a future where artificial and natural reality are intermingled so thoroughly that there's nowhere you can get away from it, there is one such place left. It's a bubble of ice encrusted air with an artificial sun at its heart and quite a lively human population living in its weightless atmosphere. That gives us a lot of good material to work with, but the author added one more brilliant twist to it –- there's an electronics suppressor field maintained by the artificial sun at the center of it all, so you won't find so much as a light bulb in all of Virga. Or you wouldn't, except that in the first book someone turned off the field in order to use something called "radar" to even the odds in an unfair fight.

That someone was Venera Fanning, or more specifically her "armorer", a young girl from outside Vigra who knew about such things. Venera, wife of an admiral of Slipstream, her home country, used the knowledge held by the outsider…unaware that she in turn was being used. Once the field was turned off, even if only for a few hours, all manner of virtual entireties could slip into Virga, and once inside, the havoc they could wreak would not stop with the return of the field.

Book one (Sun of Suns) took us to the heart of Candesce to shut down the field. That book more or less belonged to Hayden Griffin, a young man with a past who wanted revenge on the admiral for brutally subjugating his home country of Aerie, destroying the sun they were building for themselves, and killing his parents in the process. As the book progressed, and he came to know the players, his ambition turned from revenge to the fulfillment of his parent's dream, to create a Pirate Sun and free his country from Slipstream's control.

In Book two, Queen of Candesce, Venera takes center stage as she worked her way up from being a penniless castaway far from home to leading a revolution, and perhaps more importantly, creating a spy network to gleam information from and act through.

Now Venera hands off the story to her husband, Admiral Chaison Fanning, who she had manipulated into attacking the country of Falcon in the first place. Fanning's attack destroyed the dreadnought that Falcon had been building, but had done so at the cost of the small fleet he'd taken on what was clearly a suicide mission. Fallon survived to be taken into custody for torture in Falcon's prison, along with one or two others of his complement. At the beginning of the book, Chaison is broken out of prison by Venera, and no doubt would have gotten clean away…but his damnable sense of duty sends him back to save the only member of his crew he knows survived, a press ganged urchin named Darius. When he stumbles across the ambassador to Falcon from his county he brings the man along for good measure, and they all head out into the bedlam caused by the escape. I won't tell you the details, but trust me, f you're ever stuck in prison and need a creative way out, Karl Schroeder's your man.

Had Fanning gone off with Venera, he'd be home by now, or at least somewhere he could recoup his losses, but instead he finds himself the prey in a cat and mouse game with Falcon's Secret Police. Nobody much likes the latter, but they pay well and strike fear into the citizenry's hearts…so it's not long before Fanning and his friends are surrounded and things are looking grim. At least until Antaea, a character straight out of anime; a girl with oversized eyes, leather flying togs and six inch spiked heels (deadly in zero-gee combat) rescues them on her jet propelled air bike. Which is not to say they aren't jumping out of the fat and into the fire, because of course, they are.

Chaison and Antaea flee the secret police with different agenda's making them strange traveling companions and strained bedfellows. Chaison wants to return to his life in Slipstream, while Antaea wants to take him back to the Home Guard, a semi-secret group charged with the protection of all Virga. She knows that he is the key to the shutdown of the field that prohibits electronics from working and wants to get that power for the Guard, or at least for a faction of it she belongs to.

As they flee together they discover that there are worse things than having the secret police after you. Like being trapped in a city about to be attacked by a massive force from the next country over after the government and police have all fled, leaving the common folk to fend for themselves, or more likely, die.

Chaison has been growing up through this whole adventure, coming to realize that his sense of self is completely comprised of duty, and that he is striving to return home to a country that is now done with him, having made its peace with the one he tried to save it from. Realizing that he is more than the person he started out as, he has to decide where his home really is, and what kind of man he wants to be.

The internal political structure of Virga is a collection of little monarchies where the will of each country's "Pilot" reigns supreme. Around each has grown the normal retinue of aristocrats and apparatchik, but throughout the book the author has placed rumblings of democracy; government for, of, and by the people. Though the people certainly might have cause to want to get out from under their rulers, with their schemes of conquest and disregard for the commoners, it's not clear where the seeds of ferment are coming from. In Queen of Candesce, Venera allied herself with a pro-democracy underground and provided them with printing presses, the ultimate tool of revolution. Now, in Pirate Sun, an underground currency is showing up, each bill festooned with, and evidentially backed by, some portion of a bill of rights.

Against this background each of the characters has to determine what the arc and fabric of their own stories are, and what role they will play in the changes taking place in Virga.

The world of Virga is filled with wooden towns shaped like Willy Ley space stations spun for gravity, warships that are half Buck Rogers spaceship and half wooden hulled sailing ship, jet propelled airbikes and pocket fusion suns, and it all works perfectly. When I started out with the series, I thought, this can't possibly work…but in just a few pages I was pulled in and more than willing to believe that an vital steampunk-esque economy and ecosphere in a zero gee bubble was perfectly possible. And a lot of fun.

I've really enjoyed this series, and with the introduction of Antaea, whose form is the result of genetic manipulation to create anime mod-humans, I can't help but wonder if it might not make a good anime, or at least a manga, and if Schroeder was thinking along those lines.

Pirate Sun is the third book in this series, and finishes quite satisfyingly, though it's clearly not the last book of all. Each of these books have stood on their own as episodes with shifting lead characters and you should feel free to jump in anywhere, though of course, the beginning isn't a bad place to start.

In the Virga saga, Schroeder demonstrates that he is capable of rich characters, exciting action, compelling plot, and very solid science. Though editor David Hartwell claimed that this was "about as much fun as SF gets these days", I'd say that it's fun in the same league as the best SF ever has had to offer, fully as exciting and full of cool science as work from the golden age of SF, but with characterization and plot layering equal to the scrutiny of critical appraisers.

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