Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder
From Publishers Weekly: “The swashbuckling space settlers of Schroeder’s fantastical novel (after 2005’s Lady of Mazes) 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.”
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I unabashedly love science fiction. This is a gift mostly from my dad. He’s a fan of classic sci-fi—Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert—which allowed me to discover the genre on late night book raids while searching for a new book to read among the family library. But I have a confession to make: I also have a hard time reading science fiction. Almost inevitably, those first two chapters are laborious, occasionally tortuous to get through. It is not uncommon for me to start a sci-fi book and lose interest within the first 30 pages, only to pick up the exact same book a year later and, enthralled, read the entire book in one sitting. I’m not sure why I’m so prone to false starts, but I think it might just be an extension of, quite simply, being in the mood for a certain kind of book.
So what does this have to do with Sun of Suns?
This is one of those books that will probably require a mood. I first read it on the recommendation of a friend of mine with impeccable taste, so I approached the book expecting to enjoy it. Lo and behold, I did! However, upon a re-reading, I can see how, had I just picked it up off the shelf, it probably would have taken me a few tries to get through it. This is pretty hard-core sci-fi; as Joie mentioned, you are thrown into a very different world with little background, so you have to work to discover what is going on.
Where I disagree (strenuously even) with Joie is in her conclusion that this total-immersion tactic is ineffective or unnecessarily confusing. Schroeder’s world-building is absolutely brilliant, and it is exciting to discover how simple physics that we take for granted manifest is a world that is inside-out and essentially gravity-less. He comes up with fascinating solutions for fundamental problems. In fact, the most overwhelming feeling I get from reading Sun of Suns is awe at how fully-realized his world-building is. One thing Karl Schroeder does not lack is imagination.
As far as the characters in the novel, Joie has a point about the love interest, Aubri Mallahan. The Mysterious Woman With A Past is a standard romantic trope, and Schroeder does very little to distinguish his character from the many that have gone before. The good news is, she is the only character that feels stilted. Hayden, the main character, is sympathetic and driven yet dumb and inconsistent in the way that all humans are. However, Joie is correct that the best characters are Chaison and Venera Fanning. They are prickly and not inherently likeable–certainly not loveable–but their interplay is fascinating. They are a power couple, married for politics and little else. At first it seems a given that their entire relationship is based on mutual loathing, but as the book progresses, in between all their schemes and betrayals and conniving, Schroeder introduces an affection that keeps them coming back to each other in times of greatest crisis. This underlying connection culminates in a tender and oddly sweet moment at the end of the book that is a tribute to Schroeder’s writing that no one felt out-of-character. I enjoyed the people inhabiting this world.
Overall, Sun of Suns is a great book, and an impressive feat of science fiction. Is it an easy read? No. Is it confusing? At times, very. Are there gems worth the hassle and potential false starts inherent in the novel? Absolutely.
Read Joie’s original review here!