Friday, September 5, 2014

Book Review: Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder

I picked up this book a long time ago, when Amazon was having a sale. The blurb sounded interesting, so I got it without really checking what the book was about, a truly spontaneous purchase. Because of that, however, I left it in my Kindle for a long time instead of reading it. Here's the blurb:

It is the distant future. The world known as Virga is a fullerene balloon three thousand kilometers in diameter, filled with air, water, and aimlessly floating chunks of rock. The humans who live in this vast environment must build their own fusion suns and "towns" that are in the shape of enormous wood and rope wheels that are spun for gravity. 

Young, fit, bitter, and friendless, Hayden Griffin is a very dangerous man. He's come to the city of Rush in the nation of Slipstream with one thing in mind: to take murderous revenge for the deaths of his parents six years ago. His target is Admiral Chaison Fanning, head of the fleet of Slipstream, which conquered Hayden's nation of Aerie years ago. And the fact that Hayden's spent his adolescence living with pirates doesn't bode well for Fanning's chances...

For my full review, read on.

Overall Impression
Sun of Suns has an interesting premise. However, the characters and plot aren't particularly great. The best part about the book is the setting: a world-sized ballon holding people, towns, ships, and artificial suns in free-fall. There is no gravity so the mechanics behind moving around and how things behave in the world are very cool. It's an interesting thought experiment as to how things could be. Unfortunately, as you'll see below, the premise falls a bit flat. I think this may have been better executed as a hard sci-fi short story than an adventure trilogy.

Plot
The story moves along at a fast pace, which is a plus. However, it's fairly simplistic and straightforward. While it's not a young adult book, it felt like it because of the narrative. It's basically an adventure story of a young man as he gets caught up in a plot to save the people he's sworn to kill. It's not particularly original, but not all stories have to be. The adventure-y nature works very well to present the world piece by piece and keep you glued to the story. Overall, it's not a bad way to tell the story, but I would have wanted a bit more depth or complexity. For example, at one point instead of presenting the main character with a potentially intriguing moral decision, the situation is changed to avoid having to deal with it.

Characters
The story revolves around Hayden, a young man of Aerie who saw his parents killed at the hands of the nation Slipstream. He has sworn revenge and manages to get himself closer and closer to his enemies. We also meet the admiral Chaison and his wife Venera. Venera is a ruthless, ambitious woman and is behind the mission that takes all the characters on a journey through the world of Virga. Martor, a young soldier, and Aurie, the armorer, are also very prominent and become close friends of Hayden. There is potential to have grey characters, that is, characters who aren't wholly good or evil (black/white), but the book only half-succeeds at this.

Some of the characters change through the story. Martor grows up as he realizes being a soldier isn't all action and adventure and Hayden also changes as he realizes his enemy is human. However, most of the others are static, especially the two women. More troubling is the fact that the main character is too good at everything. He has no real flaws, but is an excellent pilot, swordsman, spy, friend, and all around good guy. He even gets the girl when she decides he deserves a prize. It all feels fake and forced. As you go through the story you can see how the too-good-to-be-true nature of the character significantly cheapens the story. The characters are the weakest part of the novel, which is a real shame.

Setting / World Building
This is where Sun of Suns really shines (pun intended!). The novel is set in the world of Virga, which is very different from most every other world you've heard of. It is a giant balloon in space filled with air and people live inside it. Schroeder pays a lot of attention to the basic physics behind such a construction, which leads to some pretty fascinating conclusions. Some things are left to the imagination or to 'magic' (aka, sufficiently advanced technology).

Being a hollow sphere means there is no gravity inside it. The characters float around all the time or rely on spinning wheels to generate gravity via centrifugal force. Their towns and ships are all built like wheels or cylinders to utilize this. The people of Virga don't have a view of the stars or their real Sun (Vega), but instead have artificial suns that light up their towns. These aren't bright enough to illuminate the whole sphere so there are many pockets of cold darkness. Cities cluster around the suns, though the cold parts of winter are still populated with exiles, pirates, and outcasts.

One of the strengths of the book is how the world is very slowly revealed. We don't get massive info-dumps and instead get a chance to explore the world as the characters do. Some, like Aubrey, know a lot and as they describe Virga to those not too familiar of the areas beyond their hometowns, we get the benefit of learning too. We realize there is a whole universe of people beyond Virga who embrace something known as Artificial Nature. It's all very interesting, but we don't get all the details in this book. Clearly, the author intends to explore more of Virga, and the rest of the universe, in future books.

Final Thoughts
Sun of Suns is an all-around mediocre book. The setting is fascinating, but the characters and plot are subpar. The plot makes for a simple quick read. However, the characters fall completely flat and ruin the experience. It's a shame since the world seems like a great place to explore. It's an OK book if you just want to pass the time and read a quick story, but I wouldn't give this a particularly high recommendation. I think this would have been better presented as a hard sci-fi short story than a full-length novel.

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