While the first book in Karl Schroeder's Virga trilogy, Sun of Suns, took advantage of an incredibly unique setting, this second book makes the mistake of finding a way of ignoring that setting. If you'll recall, the books are set in a giant air bag with an artificial sun at its center (http://perrynomasia.blogspot.com/2008/03/sun-of-suns.html). The first novel is action-packed as warships steam through this amazing sea in space, fighting fleets and attacking "islands" that are generally distinct nations. Queen of Candesce remains filled with action, but is set on one of these islands, Spyre, thus removing a great deal of what makes the first book so riveting.
Spyre is a giant cylinder with land covering its inner surface, much like the classic Rama from Arthur C. Clarke. Venera Fanning comes flying into this world courtesy of the events that ended the first novel, only be saved from capture by Garth Diamandis, lothario and gentleman adventurer who, while perhaps past his prime, is getting by quite nicely with the reduced gravity that the cylinder maintains. Fanning, perhaps the most disagreeable character from the first novel, is explored in some detail in Queen of Candesce, providing background and motive to her general unlikeability. Fanning matures as the novel goes on, growing to see other characters as people rather than tools in her power game. This is not to say that the power game she is involved with in the first novel is forgotten; indeed, it is what drives the action of the novel.
However, Queen of Candesce veers into the general structure of fantasy, in part because it removes the hard science aspects of living in a giant gas bag. Instead, the novel sets up Fanning as "the one"; the only person perhaps capable of fixing the near-anarchic state of affairs on Spyre, relying on her role as an outsider to allow her to see the many failings of the way of life on Spyre. Unfortunately, the goal of fixing Spyre is the happy side-effect of her pursuit of an artifact she pursues across the island, one that will give her the power to control all of Virga. There are still moments of hard science-fiction, especially in the moments when Fanning explores new areas of Spyre, such as Fin, one of the principalities of Spyre, located on a giant control fin for the entire cylinder. One particularly striking passage involves Fanning leading an invasion group against another principality, by going through a port on the outside of Spyre and essentially coming up through the basement.
Despite my disappointment in the reduction in the hard science fiction elements compared to the first novel, Queen of Candesce remains an interesting story, especially if it is considered something like a planetary romance with broad sweeping movements across an unknown territory. Schroeder sets up an interesting stagnant culture on Spyre, the roots of which are mostly believable, though the extremes to which the story carries them may push on a more critical reader's suspension of disbelief. The side characters are often more interesting than Fanning, in part because her path becomes increasingly predictable as the story goes on.
Schroeder's biggest weakness, however, lies in the physical description of the settings the characters find themselves in. It seems clear that Schroeder has a good idea of his characters' movements across Spyre, but it is never explained very clearly to the reader. I still can't figure out how the town of Lesser Spyre works; Schroeder seems to feel that saying it is a "wheel-city" is sufficient and leaves the details to the imagination of the reader. It's not crucial to the plot of the book, except when it becomes so, and I just can't make the physics (or perhaps geometry) work out. And when the final battle takes place between Fanning's allies and the dark conspiracy behind the malaise that Spyre suffers, Schroeder does not explain enough of the geography of the place or the layout of the buildings for it to make much sense. Fortunately, the action hops right along so that the reader doesn't have to dwell on the reasons for tactical decisions so much as the results.
The result is that Queen of Candesce is a light enjoyable read with not much going on to provoke serious consideration from the reader. I'm hoping that this is a blip in the trilogy, that the final novel will return to the imaginative storytelling of the first. But even if it doesn't, Schroeder shows the potential for a vibrant future and deserves to be watched in the next few years.