The Sunless Countries: Book Four of Virga
by Karl Schroeder
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765320766
Date: 04 August 2009 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In the fourth book in Karl Schroeder's imaginative Virga series, our main character is Leal Maspeth, a history tutor hoping to make full professor...but swimming uphill against a repressive theocracy in the floating city of Pacquaea, which seeks to create a consensual history out of whatever they choose to believe rather than the inconvenient truths of the past. But as ships and whole floating cities begin to go missing, it's exactly the sort of heretical truth that Leah has spent her life pursing that will be needed to understand the conflict that Pacquaea finds itself at the center of.
The Sunless Countries takes place in the author's Virga artifact, a vast zero gee sphere of air, where electronics are nullified by a field generated by the artificial sun at its heart. Though it's billed as the fourth book in the series, I think it's fair to consider it the first book in the second series. Hayden Griffith is back, having fulfilled his life's mission of creating a new fusion sun for his home country of Aerie, but while he's a significant character, he's a supporting character. Center stage is held by historian/tutor Leal Maspeth, who is both current political regime's worst nightmare and her city's best hope for survival.
The regime coming to power is the Eternists, who have dispensed with history to declare Virga to have always been, and one assumes, always to be. Leal, a student of the distant past, especially the period where Virga itself was built, is steeped in knowledge that has been branded as dangerous, and hence illegal. That all sounds chillingly familiar, as it no doubt is intended to.
As the iron glove of populist reality tighten around her world, Leal faces the classic dilemma of intellectuals under emerging fascism. Does she cooperate in order to have some ability to protect the precious knowledge that the Eternists seek to suppress, hoping that the wheel will turn again in her lifetime? Or does she openly oppose them, putting herself at risk?
Though the author does a fine job of showing the slippery Orwellian slope that leads good people to despair, he also shows the folly of fascism when it faces threats from the very realms that it has declared to be non-existent. Though the polity has declared the cause of the disappearing ships to be pirates, it's a thin notion, and Leal sees that much greater forces are at work.
She turns to Hayden Griffin, the Sunlighter, who has come to this backwater to set up his workshop and create another fusion sun for the lightless region of Virga, known as the Abyss. Though we recognize Hayden as an older version of the obsessed young adventurer bent on getting revenge for his parents deaths and a sun for his homeland, he's become self absorbed and a bit moody. Though he has a certain stature as a heroic figure, which lends him some insulation from the political shenanigans around him, he's no longer a man with a cause, and we see him drifting a bit in the current, at risk of becoming a tool for the polity. Sadly, it's been Hayden's fate to be driven by forces outside himself, rather than a clarity of vision of his own.
Leal, on the other hand, is coming into her own. When the survivor of an armada sent out to stop the pirates comes back gibbering about terrifying voices, she recognizes the spoor of ancient, nearly mythical players and finds herself the only person with both knowledge and will to face the truth.
Unlike the previous three books, The Sunless Countries closes at the beginning of the story to follow on, suggesting that Leal will be the main character of the next book as well. I'm not completely happy about this, as it leaves one with the feeling that the author would just as soon have written the entire story at one shot, but has broken it up for proposes of publishability.
Also, The Sunless Countries has a different feel to it than the first three books, though it fleshes out the conflict between the forces outside Virga and those that control it which the author has been setting up all along. Moving on from Hayden's story of personal revenge, we step onto a larger stage and from planetary romance to full blown space opera.