Unconquerable Sun

by Kate Elliott

Cover image

Series: Sun Chronicles #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 1-250-19725-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 526

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Sun is the daughter and heir of the mercurial Queen-Marshal Eirene, ruler of the Republic of Chaonia. Chaonia, thanks to Eirene and her ancestors, has carved out a fiercely independent position between the Yele League and the Phene Empire. Sun's father, Prince João, is one of Eirene's three consorts, all chosen for political alliances to shore up that fragile position. João is Gatoi, a civilization of feared fighters and supposed barbarians from outside Chaonia who normally ally with the Phene, which complicates Sun's position as heir. Sun attempts to compensate for that by winning battles for the Republic, following in the martial footsteps of her mother.

The publisher's summary of this book is not great (I'm a huge fan of Princess Leia, but that is... not the analogy that comes to mind), so let me try to help. This is gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space. However, it is gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space with her Companions, which means the DNA of this novel is half space opera and half heist story (without, to be clear, an actual heist, although there are some heist-like maneuvers). It's also worth mentioning that Sun, like Alexander, is not heterosexual.

The other critical thing to know before reading, mostly because it will get you through the rather painful start, is that the most interesting viewpoint character in this book is not Sun, the Alexander analogue. It's Persephone, who isn't introduced until chapter seven.

Significant disclaimer up front: I got a reasonably typical US grade school history of Alexander the Great, which means I was taught that he succeeded his father, conquered a whole swath of the middle of the Eurasian land mass at a very young age, and then died and left his empire to his four generals who promptly divided it into four uninteresting empires that no one's ever heard of, and that's why Rome is more important than Greece. (I put in that last bit to troll one specific person.)

I am therefore not the person to judge the parallels between this story and known history, or to notice any damage done to Greek pride, or to pick up on elements that might cause someone with a better grasp of that history to break out in hives. I did enough research to know that one scene in this book is lifted directly out of Alexander's life, but I'm not sure how closely the other parallels track. Yele is probably southern Greece and Phene is probably Persia, but I'm not certain even of that, and some of the details don't line up. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that Elliott has probably mangled history sufficiently to make it clear that this isn't intended to be a retelling, but if the historical parallels are likely to bother you, you may want to do more research before reading.

What I can say is that the space opera setup, while a bit stock, has all the necessary elements to make me happy. Unconquerable Sun is firmly in the "lost Earth" tradition: The Argosy fleet fled the now-mythical Celestial Empire and founded a new starfaring civilization without any contact with their original home. Eventually, they invented (or discovered; the characters don't know) the beacons, which allow for instantaneous travel between specific systems without the long (but still faster-than-light) journeys of the knnu drive. More recently, the beacon network has partly collapsed, cutting off the characters' known world from the civilization that was responsible for the beacons and guarded their secrets. It's a fun space opera history with lots of lost knowledge to reference and possibly discover, and with plot-enabling military choke points at the surviving beacons that link multiple worlds.

This is all background to the story, which is the ongoing war between Chaonia and the Phene Empire mixed with cutthroat political maneuvering between the great houses of the Chaonian Republic. This is where the heist aspects come in. Each house sends one representative to join the household of the Queen-Marshal and (more to the point for this story) another to join her heir. Sun has encouraged the individual and divergent talents of her Companions and their cee-cees (an unfortunate term that I suspect is short for Companion's Companion) and forged them into a good working team. A team that's about to be disrupted by the maneuverings of a rival house and the introduction of a new team member whom no one wants.

A problem with writing tactical geniuses is that they often aren't good viewpoint characters. Sun's tight third-person chapters, which is a little less than half the book, advance the plot and provide analysis of the interpersonal dynamics of the characters, but aren't the strength of the story. That lies with the interwoven first-person sections that follow Persephone, an altogether more interesting character.

Persephone is the scion of the house that is Sun's chief rival, but she has no interest in being part of that house or its maneuverings. When the story opens, she's a cadet in a military academy for recruits from the commoners, having run away from home, hidden her identity, and won a position through the open entrance exams. She of course doesn't stay there; her past catches up with her and she gets assigned to Sun, to a great deal of mutual suspicion. She also is assigned an impeccably dressed and stunningly beautiful cee-cee, Tiana, who has her own secrets and who was my favorite character in the book.

Somewhat unusually for the space opera tradition, this is a book that knows that common people exist and have interesting lives. It's primarily focused on the ruling houses, but that focus is not exclusive and the rulers do not have a monopoly on competence. Elliott also avoids narrowing the political field too far; the Gatoi are separate from the three rival powers, and there are other groups with traditions older than the Chaonian Republic and their own agendas. Sun and her Companions are following a couple of political threads, but there is clearly more going on in this world than that single plot.

This is exactly the kind of story I think of when I think space opera. It's not doing anything that original or groundbreaking, and it's not going to make any of my lists of great literature, but it's a fun romp with satisfyingly layered bits of lore, a large-scale setting with lots of plot potential, and (once we get through the confusing and somewhat tedious process of introducing rather too many characters in short succession) some great interpersonal dynamics. It's the kind of book in which the characters are in the middle of decisive military action in an interstellar war and are also near-teenagers competing for ratings in an ad hoc reality TV show, primarily as an excuse to create tactical distractions for Sun's latest scheme. The writing is okay but not great, and the first few chapters have some serious infodumping problems, but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole book and will pre-order the sequel.

One Amazon review complained that Unconquerable Sun is not a space opera like Hyperion or Use of Weapons. That is entirely true, but if that's your standard for space opera, the world may be a disappointing place. This is a solid entry in a subgenre I love, with some great characters, sarcasm, competence porn, plenty of pages to keep turning, a few twists, and the promise of more to come. Recommended.

Followed by the not-yet-published Furious Heaven.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-09-21

Last modified and spun 2020-09-23