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Queen of Candesce by Karl SchroederThree and a half stars

Karl Schroeder goes in an unexpected direction with his second Virga novel, and the result is exactly what one hopes for in a sequel. A good sequel is one in which concepts introduced and possibilities only hinted at in earlier books are allowed to flower, not merely repeat the journey of paths already trod. Schroeder doesn't let us down. Queen of Candesceexpands upon Sun of Suns, its story opening up more of Schroeder's stunning world for us to explore, allowing us glimpses of its most wondrous and dangerous secrets, and its strangest denizens.

One thing Queen of Candesce has going for it is that Schroeder has opted for a more interesting protagonist. Venera Fanning — ruthless, pragmatic, unclouded by sentiment, yet whose lifetime of anger and mistrust masks inner fragility — takes center stage for Virga's second act. The plot this time builds gradually in narrative complexity as Schroeder carefully adds one layer upon another like a master craftsman. And the next sentence may spoil some of the ending of book one (though I'll be as careful as I can), so proceed with caution.

Venera was last seen — Sun of Suns massive spoiler warning! — tumbling away into the vast skies of Virga, with the key that controls Candesce, Virga's central sun and main power source, in her possession. Adrift perhaps for days, she is plucked from the sky by one Garth Diamandis, an exile living on the ramshackle and truly jacked up cylinder of Spyre. Unlike most of Virga's spinning habitat nations, Spyre is a baffling and bizarre patchwork of micronations (many comprised of nothing more than a single building and its grounds) and closed, insular societies of antisocials and inbred families, some of whom haven't been seen outside their walls in generations. Still, some of the less dysfunctional of these have formed a council, a sort of little UN, as it were, and many of Spyre's micronations enjoy healthy trade with nations elsewhere in Virga. The little nation of Liris, for example, are the only folks in Virga who grow cherries. So while they're not totally isolated on Spyre, they're certainly a breed apart.

Spyre's largest cylinder is nearly falling apart, with massive gaps in its shell threatening its spin and structural integrity. But the biggest threat to, well, everyone, is the bellicose nation of Sacrus, who won't even let the fanatical Preservationists, whose mission is simply to keep Spyre held together, through their territory. After Venera is rescued, her only goal is to return to her home nation, Slipstream, and her husband, Admiral Chaison Fanning. (Or at least, find out whether or not he's even still alive.) In order to put herself in a position where escaping from Spyre is even possible, Venera masquerades as the heir of a tiny nation, Buridan, long believed abandoned and defunct, in order to land a place on Spyre's council. Sacrus wastes no time in being more than a little thorn in her side. And the events that are set in motion wind up being far, far bigger than she anticipated.

One thing I admired about Queen of Candesce was Schroeder's tightening his focus. In Sun of Suns, he set the action against the entire vastness of Virga, as though, in the enthusiasm of establishing this remarkable world, he couldn't resist showing us all of it. Here, he takes a deep breath and gives us time to acquaint ourselves with just one of Virga's many communities, its people and politics. This time, Schroeder's story just has more humanism, more heart. We meet idealistic rebels who want to spread what they call "emergent democracy" throughout all of Virga. We meet tragic would-be heroes and psychotic botanists. We're introduced to the unusual Dali horses, the distant descendants of those horses brought by Virga's original colonists, and who have adapted to lower gravity conditions in such a way that their bodies — well, you can guess by their names how they must look.

Into this teeming world, Venera discovers for the first time in her life goals outside herself, and while she never lacks for new enemies, she also finds the first friends she's ever really had. And that enables her to build a comfort zone in which the mistrust and fear that have steered her life so far can relax just a bit. I'm not sure a kinder, gentler Venera Fanning was exactly what I was after, but it's a hard-fought character arc for her, and that keeps the emotions truthful and easy sentiment at bay.

Nitpicks? Well, I wouldn't be doing my job without a few. I have to confess to bafflement over the idea that the builders and designers of Virga would allow total access to Candesce, and the absolute power over the whole habitat that entails, simply by the use of one key. I mean, doesn't it take at least two to launch a nuclear missile? (At least that's how it is in the movies.) You'd think there'd be better security measures in place in the event that key fell into the hands of...well...the kinds of nutcases who try to get their hands on it here. Also, while Schroeder handled his action scenes in Sun of Suns like a pro, in this book, there are battle scenes that occasionally lapse into confusion when it isn't always clear whose armies are where, doing what in which direction.

That aside, Queen of Candesce is a smashing second installment in a saga whose combination of imagination, invention and adventure are like nothing else in SF today.

Followed by Pirate Sun.