Tor, 2000, 662 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-57635-7
Some human endeavours are harder than others. While no one will ever confuse writing a novel with performing brain surgery, writing a mathematic Ph.D. thesis or even raising a child, no one will ever say that writing a good professional novel is easy. You have to balance narrative exposition with careful character development, dramatic tension and basic writing abilities. Analyse any random 600-pages novel and you’ll quickly find a bunch of interlocking factors in a framework so large that it’s almost a wonder to realize that people actually pull this off.
Science-fiction writers must be even more masochistic than most other novelist. To the already mind-boggling demands of novel-writing, they add the necessity to construct a wholly fictional world and present it to the reader in a seamless fashion. Oh, and explain new complex concepts to the average readers. Why would anyone willingly choose that job?
Karl Schroeder did. Ventus isn’t his first novel (he co-wrote The Claus Effect with David Nickle), but it’s certainly the one which will make the SF world stand up and take notice of his potential. It’s a massive, epic story about a planet with many secrets, spanning dozen of very different characters and a conflict with galactic repercussions.
Yet we begin this hard-SF story in a fashion that is almost identical to most fantasy trilogies. Young Jordan Mason is an apprentice on a vast estate. While the first chapter hints strongly at a SFictional tone -what with an attack by a silver mechal life form-, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything radically different between him and some medieval squire. Gunpowder has been invented, but what’s this about flying creatures attacking any higher technology?
As the story unfolds, both Mason and the reader discover that the ground beneath their feet isn’t nearly as stable -nor natural- as it may first seems. Jordan is almost kidnapped by strangers, thrust in complex political games and eventually made to realize an awesome untapped power. Before the book is through, we’ll visit a fantastically advanced Earth, be privy to scenes of devastating scope and -maybe more importantly- witness the emotional evolution of a cast of characters.
Ventus is a big, satisfying book, the kind that’s made for you, a comfy chair, plenty of hot chocolate and a long Sunday in front of a fireplace. It takes a while, more than a long while, to get going, but once it ignites, it’s a highly enjoyable read. Most notable is the changing nature of the characters; those who seems initially reliable end up as raving psychopaths and those who seems singularly inept ends up controlling everything. Then there’s the impressive feat of managing more than a dozen major characters without fumbling too much. Ventus doesn’t feel like a first novel; you’d be hard-pressed to consider it as being anything less than a great work by a professional author at the height of his powers. You’ll love the SF elements and the characters.
The science-fantasy aspect of the tale is annoying at first, but makes increasing sense as the underpinning of Ventus is explained. After that realisation, one can only be impressed at how well the tale unfolds, how the technological/scientific themes are well-exploited in order to give meaning to the story. The narrative even introduces interesting philosophical elements late in the story without undue effort. It’s also one of the smoothest blend of science and characterization to come along in recent memories.
After the impressive Ventus, it’s hard to wait until Schroeder’s next novel. Canada has produced several impressive SF writers in the past few years, but few seem to be audacious enough to turn out stories with the epic scope of Ventus. Schroeder seems, with his first solo novel, to aim for a spot aside Vernor Vinge and L.E. Modesitt Jr. If everything goes right, get ready for a memorable career.