Recent Genre Fiction Reading: Schroeder, Buckell, Cole

I've gotten out of the habit of booklogging recently, which is sort of a shame, because it means I've also gone back to the problem that led Kate and me to start booklogs in the first place: people ask what I've been reading recently, and I can't remember... As a sort of corrective to this, though, here's a post lumping together short comments on my three most recent reads: Karl Schroeder's Ashes of Candesce (excerpt at, Tobias Buckell's Arctic Rising (excerpt at, and Myke Cole's Shadow Ops: Control Point (which isn't a Tor book, so they didn't do an excerpt).

Ashes of Candesce is the fifth and presumably final book in Schroeder's Virga series, set in a planet-sized volume of air floating in orbit in the distant parts of another solar system. It's inhabited by humans who live in rotating towns (to provide artificial gravity) around artificial fusion-powered suns, each of which illuminates a "country" a few hundred miles in diameter. At the center of Virga is Candesce, the "sun of suns," vastly larger than the other suns, which also produces a mysterious field that suppresses certain kinds of technology.

The first three books are set entirely within Virga, and are swashbuckling adventure tales, for the most part. Karl said at a convention once that he started writing the series because he wanted a setting in which a protagonist could ride around on what is basically a jet engine with handlebars, which tells you something about the general feel. The fourth book takes a somewhat darker turn, expanding the scope a little to include some of the universe outside Virga, where humanity finds itself in conflict with something ominously termed "Artificial Nature," and the mysterious technology of Candesce is apparently key to this conflict.

Ashes of Candesce brings the whole thing to a suitably epic conclusion. You could probably read it without reading the first three, but it wouldn't make much sense at all without having read the fourth, and the context of the initial books adds extra depth to the story. The book ends up spelling out exactly what Artificial Nature is, why it's a problem, and how Virga figures into the whole thing. Which involves some fairly inspired technobabble (which, alas, is still technobabble, but a higher class of it than you usually see.

Arctic Rising, the tour for which will soon bring Toby to this area, is a bit of a departure from Buckell's earlier Caribbean-flavored space opera. This is a near-future thriller, in which a basically ice-free Arctic is the major economic engine of a severely warmed globe, with polar nations as major powers, and a new quasi-nation called Thule occupying the pole.

The book follows Anika Duncan, an African-born airship pilot who works for the UN Polar Guard, trying to restrict the flow of contraband and weapons into the polar region. When a routine sweep of a cargo ship trips a radiation alarm, Duncan finds herself shot out of the air, and pursued by agents of a mysterious force out to kill her for what she saw. She needs to fight hard to stay alive, and figure out what's going on before it spells doom for the entire world.

This is a pretty straigthforward thriller plot, but what's novel is the setting, which is somewhat unique in being a near-future global-warming story that isn't a Grim Meathook Future (to borrow a term from James Nicoll). As a result, it reads as somewhat more plausible than a lot of more recent fiction about inevitable DOOOOM-- things are bad for a lot of people, but most people are finding ways to adjust to the new order, and some are doing quite well for themselves.

There's a bit of a personal thematic connection between these two books, that wouldn't be obvious to anybody but me: Lo these many years ago, I was asked to moderate a panel at Boskone featuring Karl, and Toby, and Rosemary Kirstein. Having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, I made it a point to read a book by each of them before the panel, and thus discovered three of my current favorite authors. Having both Karl and Toby publish new books at the same time is a nice treat. Getting the next Steerswoman book would be even better, but Rosemary Kirstein has a day job that keeps her very busy, alas.

This also provides a sort of connection to the third book in this review dump, which I picked up because I saw Myke Cole on a panel at Boskone, and he was very entertaining. The description of his book made me somewhat apprehensive, but once I verified it wasn't published by Baen, I picked up a copy.

Shadow Ops: Control Point is a sort of military urban fantasy: Oscar Britton is a helicopter pilot for the Army in a world where magic has returned, and people will unexpectedly manifest magical talents. Some fairly draconian laws mandate that anyone with magical talent must turn themselves in to the authorities, and those with an acceptable subset of magical abilities are drafted into the military. Those with prohibited talents, though, are tracked down and believed to be killed.

After a mission where he and his team tracked down and killed a pair of teens who manifested and were wreaking havoc, Britton himself manifests a prohibited talent, and finds out that much of what he has believed is wrong. Rather than being killed on the spot, he's taken to an alternate world, where the military has a fortified base and training center for recalcitrant magic users, where he is trained to become part of a secret unit using prohibited talents for military ends.

this book is very much a first-book-in-a-series sort of thing, and as is typical of these, it tries to pack a lot in. There's the whole basic-training story (which is the strongest part of the book, drawing as it does on Cole's own military experience), there's some team-in-action stuff with Britton and his compatriots completing some missions (also quite good), and a bunch of scene-setting to put pieces in place for future stories (which is more uneven).

I like the concept of this one, and will probably check out the second volume, because I think some of the issues I had with it will likely be fixed. There were definitely some issues, though, particularly the way Oscar changes his allegiances four or five times, sometimes within only a few pages. He also does some remarkably dumb things, which he compounds by not following them through.

The end result of the plot is pretty good, and sets things up for potentially interesting sequels. There are some points along the way, though, where it's hard to avoid thinking that Oscar is dumb as a box of rocks, though I don't think that's the intent.

Anyway, I like the basic scenario enough that I'll get the next one when it comes out, to see how things evolve. And Cole himself was sufficiently entertaining that I'll definitely seek him out on panels at future conventions.

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I had listened to an audio version of the first Virga book and forgotten how fun it was. Thanks for reminding me to pick up the rest of them - it sounds like if I liked the first one, I'll like the rest of the series.

I'm curious about the swipe at Baen. Not a fan of the person, or not a fan of the company that survives him?

I never met Jim Baen, so I have no real opinion of him as a person. Baen books publishes an awful lot of stuff with a right-wing political slant that I find pretty appalling. They have a very devoted following, but as a general matter, if I hear that a new book by an author I don't know is published by Baen, that's a pretty reliable indicator that it's probably not the sort of thing I want to read.

Ah, I wondered if it might be something like that, only because I did an SB search of Baen and someone else had mentioned the military focus. I've gotten a couple Heinlein reprints from them recently, but I haven't checked out many of their new releases.