The Sunless Countries is the fourth book in Karl Schroeder’s VIRGA series. This book introduces a new town (inside Virga) and a new protagonist. There are explanations of what’s gone on before, so you don’t have to read the first three VIRGA books (Sun of Suns, Queen of Candesce, Pirate Sun) first, but you’ll probably feel more at home if you do.
Our new heroine is Dr. Leal Maspeth, a tutor in the history department at the university on the wheel/town of Sere. Sere is compiled of several spinning wheels and it has no sun. Its citizens’ only sources of light are the artificial lamps they use. That’s why Leal got lost one night as she was travelling home from another town. While she was out in the abyss, she heard strange loud voices that seemed to be trying to relate a message. Then she saw the ships of the home guard, a mysterious military group that, according to her government, is only a legend.
Back home in Sere there are other signs that something is not right. The anti-intellectual government is getting intrusive and has tricked the people into passing some horrendous legislation. When Hayden Griffin (the protagonist from Sun of Suns who is now a hero known as The Sun-Lighter) shows up, other strange things start to happen. Towns and spaceships disappear and the government is worse than ineffective, so Leal will have to take matters into her own hands.
As with the previous VIRGA books, the best thing about The Sunless Countries is the setting. It hard to believe in the anti-intellectual society of Sere, but its architecture is fantastically cool with its burnished copper streets, shadowy alleys, towering spires, foghorns, and lighthouses, all set on a giant wheel that contains smaller spinning wheels that house all the buildings of Sere. To move between the wheels, travelers can hire a Spokesman to swing them between the axles and spokes.
The plot of The Sunless Countries is a little scattered and it isn’t as fun as the adventurous fast-paced and flashy plots of the previous books. Also, as much as I love the history professors and librarians I know, I have to say that they are just not as dynamic and exciting as the types of characters that peopled the first three VIRGA books. In addition, Hayden Griffin has lost his spirit and appears to be brooding. How boring. Besides that, the big events don’t happen until the end of the story and the wind-up is pretty slow. However, the characterization here is much better. Leal feels more real than most of Schroeder’s characters and we get to spend a lot of time in her head. I can’t say I particularly like her, though, and I didn’t like how Schroeder portrayed his supposedly strong heroine as someone who would occasionally “burst into tears” when things got tough.
The Sunless Countries ends just as things are really getting interesting. We’ve finally learned the truth about the history of Virga, what’s outside Virga, and who are Virga’s enemies and possible allies. The truth is surprising and brings up some good philosophical questions. I assume that things will be wrapped up in the final book, Ashes of Candesce. Unfortunately it is not available in audio format, so I’m not sure if I will read it. I don’t have much time to sit down with a print book and I’m not enthralled enough that I’m willing to make that time. Speaking of audio, The Sunless Countries was performed by Joyce Irvin and David Thorn. I still don’t understand why we have two narrators, but they both give a lively reading.
Virga — (2006-2012) Publisher: 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…