association-list a veritable mint for dunning-kruggerands

21 - The Sunless Countries, by Karl Schroeder

I really like Karl Schroeder’s books so far. Meaty SF think-heavy books that never shrink from engaging with the human characters at their hearts. That said, I have some quibbles with the Virga books. While the central idea is a great one, and it is explored in relentlessly interesting ways, I can’t help but think here that there are too things competing for space in what are, after all, relatively short novels. The first three books were pretty light, action-adventure novels that took us on a tour through Virga while including real human drama and the ugly choices that people are forced to make by circumstances. Since they were at ground level, playing out, for the most part, far from the character’s home, there’s fairly little engagement with societal construction, and that’s fine, because we never really stick any place for long enough for the reader to start wondering how it would all work.

In The Sunless Countries, Schroeder goes darker and attempts to engage with some serious, fascinating societal issues (absolute democratic rule when the public is ill-informed, the hijacking of a polity by neo-fascists), all the while keeping up the adventurous pace and rip roaring action and giving us more Virga wide-screen SFX and taking us out of Virga for the first time and and and. This could really work well, but the downfall of the novel is that Schroeder sticks to the format of the other Virga novels. That is, it is somewhat short (maybe 100-110k words?) and primarily follows the viewpoint of a single character. It’s rare that you’ll find me arguing that a novel should be longer. I’m generally exasperated by the level of padding required to get a book out to the 200k-ish words that seem to be required these days. But this is a book that could really use it. Using both Hayden and Leal as viewpoint characters, actually following Leal outside of Virga, rather than having her briefly recount her adventures, spending more time with the failure of the Eternist takeover, making the ending less abrupt, etc. Another 100 pages at least are justified here, and the last quarter of the book suffers a lot for their absence. Everything feels second-hand and rushed, and it skews the pacing of the novel something awful. You spend a great deal of the end of the novel inhabiting the perspective of someone in a locked room while a naval battle goes on outside.

I enjoyed the book a lot, and the setup at the end could potentially lead some interesting places, but I hope that Schroeder will manage to rush the ending less next time, which might mean bending the structure more than he’d like. As the book stands, it’s a tantalizing hint of the book that it could have been; great fun, but not all that it could quite plainly be.

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