I swear, I will write an unreservedly positive review and soon. Unfortunately, I cannot do so on this one. Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder is inventive and an adventure, but it left me stumped. To give you some context, here is the description from “Publishers Weekley”:
The swashbuckling space settlers of Schroeder’s fantastical novel inhabit warring nation-states inside a planet-sized balloon called Virga. This adventure-filled tale of sword fights and naval battles stars young Hayden Griffin of the nation of Aerie, orphaned by an attack on the artificial sun that his parents tried to build. He grows up to seek vengeance against the man who led it, Adm. Chaison Fanning of the nation Slipstream. Getting close to Fanning, though, entails infiltrating the flagship Rook and interfering in the schemes of the admiral’s wife, the devious Venera. Schroeder layers in scientific rationales for his air-filled, gravity-poor world—with its spinning cylinder towns and miles-long icebergs—but the real fun of this coming-of-age tale includes a pirate treasure hunt and grand scale naval invasions set in the cold, far reaches of space.
Sounds like fun, right? Well reading this book, for me, was an experience not unlike showing up at a party late. The games have started and you’ve missed all the food except cake (yummy though it is, you wanted the meal, too). That wouldn’t be so bad if it had been your fault that you were late, but the host is the one who accidentally told you that the party started half an hour later than it actually did. Upon finding this out, rather than warming up a plate of food and explaining the rules of the game the guests are in the middle of, the host merely says, “Oh, you’ll catch on.”
This is the same assumption Karl Schroeder makes. That the reader will catch on. He is my infuriating host and I was the confused, tardy guest who spent the rest of the party limping through, because there was a great deal of promise in some of the best moments in the book (okay, done with the metaphor). However, because Schroeder never explains all the assumptions he expects his reader to make, I was left unimpressed.
Schroeder starts too early and too late in his story at once. Introducing the reason for Hayden’s desire for revenge was best left to a flashback later in the novel, in my opinion, not the first chapter. Why? Because that first chapter is an all important moment for world-creation. It is my not-so-humble opinion that, when creating a world, you must provide a few answers to the basic questions in the first chapters. Questions like: “How does this world work?” or “What kind of society am I in? What are the basic structures?” or perhaps “WHERE THE HECK AM I?!?!?” All of these answers are good, important things to introduce very early. I never got a clear answer to any of those questions. (Please understand I am not asking for a didactic, school-like lesson on the functions of the world, just a couple hints early-on would have been nice.)
Also, and this may be just me, but I have an issue with Terran swear words in a distinctly NON-Terran society. Anne McCaffrey solved this issue with the word “shards” and another couple (a couple of her books even provide a handy-dandy list!). It was an entirely appropriate word to be used as an expletive, considering the culture she created. Surely Schroeder had imagination enough for that? I assume he merely thought it unnecessary. Very possibly he thought the reader wouldn’t care if there were Terran swear words. I very much so do, from a personal point as well as the offensive lack of imagination. I find it offensive because it would have taken so little effort, and would have been much more respectful to his readers.
Speaking of imagination, what was with the cliché love interest? Aubri Mahallan is a foreigner who clearly has an advanced understanding of science in general, not to mention the science specific to the world the characters live in. (Would have been nice for the author to let us in on that more thoroughly. Yes–I am still grumpy about this.) However, for some reason, this makes her sad. In fact, the first time we meet her, she gives some cryptic answer about her background and when the main character answers, “I don’t understand,” she says, “Good. That means we can still be friends.” Melodramatic, cryptic, foreign, AND the only unmarried female on-board a ship. This makes her two things automatically: the eventual sexual partner of the main character and slated to die. Sure enough, the cold fish dies after becoming involved with, but not loving, Hayden, who loves her. This leaves a broken-hearted main character, therefore conveniently giving him his motivation for the next novel (which I will NOT be reading).
I guess, what I am ultimately saying is that this book was disappointing. I enjoyed parts of it. I thought the sometimes-adversarial, sometimes-caring relationship between Chaison and Venera was fantastic. There was a moment when, after an entire book of sniping little fights, the couple sought comfort from each other after a near-death experience that involved hostages, a shoot-out, and jumping into space with just a hope of a clean rescue. It was a beautifully human moment when two of the most guarded characters–characters who I’m still not sure love each other–found solace in the company of their spouse, not some mistress, kept-man, or convenient body. They needed someone there who they knew, and were familiar with, to remind them that not only were they alive but also understood. Strangers cannot give such comfort.
Beautiful as some moments were (fight to the death in no gravity, where you’re dead if you lose momentum and/or if your opponent gets to you–awesome!), the rest were dull, confusing, or cliché. I found myself an indignant and frustrated reader, feeling as if I were being talked down to and told to catch up because surely I’m clever enough to at the same time. I feel like Schroeder assumes the reader is in his head by choosing to read the book, and that is exactly the place I was never allowed access to.
I suppose, with a bit of patience and luck, I could make it through the next book and see where that took me. Perhaps I’d understand more. However, I don’t believe reading should require patience and luck (unless, of course, it is required reading for school or work . . . then it demands all the patience and luck the universe can spare you). Reading is to be enjoyed, not endured. That is my problem with Sun of Suns: I endured it. I do so wish I could have enjoyed it.