Karl Schroeder's Queen of Candesce picks up where his amazing Sun of Suns left off, in Virga, the strangest and best-realized world I've encountered in science fiction's many universes, a vast pressurized bag floating in dead space, with Candesce, the artificial sun, in its center. The many strange cultures of Virga exist in a variety of habitats; some are nomadic jet-bicyclists, some live on ring-towns that are little more than splintery lumber under minimal rotation for centripetal gravity, and some live on Spyre, the world that this volume explores in loving detail.
Spyre is an ancient, disintegrating cylinder close-in to Candesce, one of the old worlds built by the Virga builders. It is surmounted by a collection of meshed towns, rings that clack together like the workings of a clock as they spin up their gravity. Greater and Lesser Spyre (as they are known) are carpeted in minuscule kingdoms, paranoid satrapies barely bigger than a building, where courtly intrigue, decadent economics, and ancient feuds conspire to create one of the best-realized cramped and mad spaces since Peake's Gormenghast.
It is Spyre where Venera Fanning lands, drifting through space since the end of Sun of Suns, and it Spyre where she comes into her own, going from penniless refugee to captive to plotter to general in a breathless adventure story that puts the whole world of Spyre at risk — and that gives us a glimpse into the superb worldbuilding that is Schroeder's hallmark (don't miss his ideas about AI-mediated "Emergent Democracy" to have your mind really bent).
I've known Karl since I was a teenager and I knew that he could do imaginary worlds like no one else, but he outdoes himself in Queen of Candesce, finding depths in his characters that turn them into complex and difficult people, people I grew to like and root for, even as they frustrated me like a pack of self-destructive pals who won't be swayed from their mad plans. The plotting matches the characters and setting for execution, and this is the fastest-reading book of Karl's yet — I read it in one day, on various planes.
There are a million things to love about this book, but there's one thing that will stay with me as a stroke of Schroederesque genius: a low-gee swordfight that had me flinching and ducking as Karl gave the subject of low-gravity melee a really serious working-over.
The Virga books buckle a shitload of swash, and they keep on getting better. I just read in Locus Magazine that Karl has delivered book three. I can hardly wait.