Furious Heaven

by Kate Elliott

Cover image

Series: Sun Chronicles #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2023
ISBN: 1-250-86701-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 725

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Furious Heaven is the middle book of a trilogy and a direct sequel to Unconquerable Sun. Don't start here. I also had some trouble remembering what happened in the previous book (grumble recaps mutter), and there are a lot of threads, so I would try to minimize the time between books unless you have a good memory for plot details.

This is installment two of gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space. When we last left Sun and her Companions, Elliott had established the major players in this interstellar balance of power and set off some opening skirmishes, but the real battles were yet to come. Sun was trying to build her reputation and power base while carefully staying on the good side of Queen-Marshal Eirene, her mother and the person credited with saving the Republic of Chaonia from foreign dominance. The best parts of the first book weren't Sun herself but wily Persephone, one of her Companions, whose viewpoint chapters told a more human-level story of finding her place inside a close-knit pre-existing friendship group.

Furious Heaven turns that all on its head. The details are spoilers (insofar as a plot closely tracking the life of Alexander the Great can contain spoilers), but the best parts of the second book are the chapters about or around Sun.

What I find most impressive about this series so far is Elliott's ability to write Sun as charismatic in a way that I can believe as a reader. That was hit and miss at the start of the series, got better towards the end of Unconquerable Sun, and was wholly effective here. From me, that's high but perhaps unreliable praise; I typically find people others describe as charismatic to be some combination of disturbing, uncomfortable, dangerous, or obviously fake. This is a rare case of intentionally-written fictional charisma that worked for me.

Elliott does not do this by toning down Sun's ambition. Sun, even more than her mother, is explicitly trying to gather power and bend the universe (and the people in it) to her will. She treats people as resources, even those she's the closest to, and she's ruthless in pursuit of her goals. But she's also honorable, straightforward, and generous to the people around her. She doesn't lie about her intentions; she follows a strict moral code of her own, keeps her friends' secrets, listens sincerely to their advice, and has the sort of battlefield charisma where she refuses to ask anyone else to take risks she personally wouldn't take. And her use of symbolism and spectacle isn't just superficial; she finds the points of connection between the symbols and her values so that she can sincerely believe in what she's doing.

I am fascinated by how Elliott shapes the story around her charisma. Writing an Alexander analogue is difficult; one has to write a tactical genius with the kind of magnetic attraction that enabled him to lead an army across the known world, and make this believable to the reader. Elliott gives Sun good propaganda outlets and makes her astonishingly decisive (and, of course, uses the power of the author to ensure those decisions are good ones), but she also shows how Sun is constantly absorbing information and updating her assumptions to lay the groundwork for those split-second decisions. Sun uses her Companions like a foundation and a recovery platform, leaning on them and relying on them to gather her breath and flesh out her understanding, and then leaping from them towards her next goal. Elliott writes her as thinking just a tiny bit faster than the reader, taking actions I was starting to expect but slightly before I had put together my expectation. It's a subtle but difficult tightrope to walk as the writer, and it was incredibly effective for me.

The downside of Furious Heaven is that, despite kicking the action into a much higher gear, this book sprawls. There are five viewpoint characters (Persephone and the Phene Empire character Apama from the first book, plus two new ones), as well as a few interlude chapters from yet more viewpoints. Apama's thread, which felt like a minor subplot of the first book, starts paying off in this book by showing the internal political details of Sun's enemy. That already means the reader has to track two largely separate and important stories. Add on a Persephone side plot about her family and a new plot thread about other political factions and it's a bit too much. Elliott does a good job avoiding reader confusion, but she still loses narrative momentum and reader interest due to the sheer scope.

Persephone's thread in particular was a bit disappointing after being the highlight of the previous book. She spends a lot of her emotional energy on tedious and annoying sniping at Jade, which accomplishes little other than making them both seem immature and out of step with the significance of what's going on elsewhere.

This is also a middle book of a trilogy, and it shows. It provides a satisfying increase in intensity and gets the true plot of the trilogy well underway, but nothing is resolved and a lot of new questions and plot threads are raised. I had similar problems with Cold Fire, the middle book of the other Kate Elliott trilogy I've read, and this book is 200 pages longer. Elliott loves world-building and huge, complex plots; I have a soft spot for them too, but they mean the story is full of stuff, and it's hard to maintain the same level of reader interest across all the complications and viewpoints.

That said, I truly love the world-building. Elliott gives her world historical layers, with multiple levels of lost technology, lost history, and fallen empires, and backs it up with enough set pieces and fragments of invented history that I was enthralled. There are at least five major factions with different histories, cultures, and approaches to technology, and although they all share a history, they interpret that history in fascinatingly different ways. This world feels both lived in and full of important mysteries.

Elliott also has a knack for backing the ambitions of her characters with symbolism that defines the shape of that ambition. The title comes from a (translated) verse of an in-universe song called the Hymn of Leaving, which is sung at funerals and is about the flight on generation ships from the now-lost Celestial Empire, the founding myth of this region of space:

Crossing the ocean of stars we leave our home behind us.
We are the spears cast at the furious heaven
And we will burn one by one into ashes
As with the last sparks we vanish.
This memory we carry to our own death which awaits us
And from which none of us will return.
Do not forget. Goodbye forever.

This is not great poetry, but it explains so much about the psychology of the characters. Sun repeatedly describes herself and her allies as spears cast at the furious heaven. Her mother's life mission was to make Chaonia a respected independent power. Hers is much more than that, reaching back into myth for stories of impossible leaps into space, burning brightly against the hostile power of the universe itself.

A question about a series like this is why one should want to read about a gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space, rather than just reading about Alexander himself. One good (and sufficient) answer is that both the gender swap and the space parts are inherently interesting. But the other place that Elliott uses the science fiction background is to give Sun motives beyond sheer personal ambition.

At a critical moment in the story, just like Alexander, Sun takes a detour to consult an Oracle. Because this is a science fiction novel, it's a great SF set piece involving a mysterious AI. But also because this is a science fiction story, Sun doesn't only ask about her personal ambitions. I won't spoil the exact questions; I think the moment is better not knowing what she'll ask. But they're science fiction questions, reader questions, the kinds of things Elliott has been building curiosity about for a book and a half by the time we reach that scene. Half the fun of reading a good epic space opera is learning the mysteries hidden in the layers of world-building. Aligning the goals of the protagonist with the goals of the reader is a simple storytelling trick, but oh, so effective.

Structurally, this is not that great of a book. There's a lot of build-up and only some payoff, and there were several bits I found grating. But I am thoroughly invested in this universe now. The third book can't come soon enough.

Followed by Lady Chaos, which is still being written at the time of this review.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-06-21

Last modified and spun 2023-07-02