Kate Elliott, Unconquerable Sun (2020)

Author: Kate Elliott

Title: Unconquerable Sun

Format: E-book

Pages: 528

Series: The Sun Chronicles #1

First of all, whoever came up with that snappy if misleading one-liner “Gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space,” was rather off the mark.

Yes, Unconquerable Sun does take place in a political environment reminiscent of the dynamic between ancient Macedonia, Greece and Persia. Yes, there are some details pointing to Elliot’s Alexandrian inspirations, such as snakes on Sun’s extravagant father’s clothing, a clear bow toward Alexander’s mother Olympias, or the explosive relationship between Sun and her mother Eirene, resembling that between Alexander and his father Phillip II. There are some hidden clues, such as a deficient sibling of the heir hidden away, or a host of concubines and wives, each with their own claim to the throne and a healthy dose of mistrust and rivalry toward each other. Will Elliott take the resemblances as far as the real story’s sad end? Considering the first installment, fizzling with YA vibes and a sense of youthful invincibility, I somehow rather doubt it. And anyway, Unconquerable Sun mostly tells the tale of Elliott’s fascination with Asian cultures: from very strong Chinese and Japanese influences to slightly more hidden Hinduist and even Mesopotamian elements.

Western influences are rather limited in this first tome, mostly focused on the superficial layer of ancient Greece and Rome, which boils down to certain affectations of nomenclature (the Ilion – Troia system, for example, or Eirene’s name), the political structure, based on several old powerful families and the rule of Primes inter pares, and institutions, such as the rulers’ Companions who serve as their most trusted advisors, friends, bodyguards and wards rolled into one appealing and highly educated package. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a very Western style of warfare, but all in all it seems that the majority of the legacy of our current Western cultures is limited to Elliot’s equivalent of the doomed Greeks – Yele, a bunch of scheming have-beens mostly focused on unimportant fluff like science and poetry, and Persians – Phene, who dwell in a powerful, technologically most advanced empire and always have taste for more conquests. Phene’s ruling caste members have four arms and sometimes a chitinous armour, as well as god-less basilicas that apparently, while quite popular among the various peoples who pray to the traditional sixteen saints, mostly serve the hidden interests of the priesthood. Oh man, while I’m the first to welcome a solid, well-prepared critique of our religious institutions, here it is such a tired, overused trope that it’s like kicking a man while he’s down. And I’m even more dispirited to report that the priesthood is basically formed by Lord Voldemorts from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, literally riding on the back of their host’s head as creepy second faces capable of long-distance telepathy.

As you probably already know, I tend to be as unstinting in criticism as I am in my praise. And Unconquerable Sun deserves both, in spades. Elliott’s vision of the far future of humanity presents an intriguing amalgam of various contemporary cultures, mixed and stirred and changed so far as to be recognizable only in bits and pieces. It’s a fascinating puzzle, and one that continues to delight me – the different versions of humanity’s socio-cultural heritage presented by various authors, from Miller Jr. to Stephenson and KSR are often more interesting to me than the actual characters or plot 😉. Elliott seems to have put a fair amount of effort into creating her world, and it is a dazzling, complex creation, with many economic, political, cultural and military dependencies, conflicts and idiosyncrasies waiting to be uncovered. There are still some lazy parts, like the dinosaurs – I mean, really? Or the lack of South American or African cultures. But all in all, worldbuilding is in my opinion by far the best aspect of this book.

The political-military plot is interesting, and the peeks at the dynamic between the dominant, ruthlessly cold yet loving mother and the ambitious, impetuous daughter striving to escape her mother’s long shadow are the highlight of the novel’s character development. Add to the mix an equally ambitious, constantly scheming father, Prince João, who nevertheless loves both the unpredictable, fickle despot Eirene and his wayward, hot-headed daughter Sun – and you have a very powerful and unstable triad at the top of the political structure of the Chaonian Republic. There’s also so much backstabbing, conniving and plotting, with space battles, surface attacks and super soldiers, that every space opera fan should be sated.

And yet there were several elements that slightly detracted from my reading pleasure. Firstly, the book is written in a rarely used style: different POVs are written either in the first or the third person perspective. While Sun’s chapters written from the TPP were interesting, swiftly propelling the action forward, the FPP chapters covering one of Sun’s Companions, a rebel girl named Persephone Lee, were, at least to me, much less so. Persephone seems like a cool enough character, but Elliott gives her several off-putting characteristics: total interpersonal naivety, loads of suicidal, counterproductive, over-the-top and incredibly juvenile snark that very quickly becomes tiresome, and some weird sex drive that makes her stupid with lust at the sight of every attractive grunt, even if, or maybe especially if it’s a one that repeatedly tries to kill her. But worry not, he’s a sweet soul forced to the murder attempts against his will due to the evil programming of the imperial Phene. While Persephone’s backstory is delightfully convoluted, much in the style of South American soap operas, the writing affectation her chapters exhibited had a very strong YA vibe – you know the drill: loads of angst, anger and short-lived desperation, aided by self-recrimination (in moderation, though, mostly in a drama queen style) and topped up by hormonal upheaval and conflicted feelings about the boys. And as she has her own companion, an eye-popping and incredibly skilled beauty called Tiana, which serves as a sort of nicer-looking Alfred to Persephone’s Year One bumbling Batman, a lot of interpersonal drama ensues. And the same is true for most of the Companions, who are mostly a bunch of very spoiled, bratty rich kids with inflated egos, superb fighting skills and cold ruthlessness of functional sociopaths. So, in short, not much character development.

It’s also a very soft SF. Despite some technical jargon describing periphelia and aphelia and some such in few places, don’t expect technical explanations about basically anything, from those blasted dinosaurs to the bioengineered soldiers to the “beacons” serving as stable interstellar gates allowing for almost instantaneous travel from one designated place to another. All things considered, it forms a bit of haphazard construction, some elements are clearly thought-through, some are left hanging out to dry – at least for now.

And lastly, before you get all hyped up about the LGBTQIA aspects, they are there, but very subdued and almost irrelevant. Persephone’s heterosexual exploits take much more time than Sun’s “blushing maiden” forbidden romance with her Companion Hetty (the forbidden part refers strictly to the relationship between people of uneven power, as Companion is a subordinate of the ruler/heir), though to be fair, fortunately sex in general doesn’t take much space on Unconquerable Sun’s pages.

All in all, I enjoyed Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun. It’s an entertaining, fast-paced, high-stakes space opera with enough intricacies and mysteries to keep me interested in the subsequent installments, even in spite of the strong YA vibes and lack of character development.

I have received a copy of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.

Score: 7/10

53 thoughts on “Kate Elliott, Unconquerable Sun (2020)

    1. Yes, I was quite surprised as well 😉 I might be overly sensitive to YA vibes right now, but I felt them quite strongly, particularly in the portion of the novel dedicated to Persephone’s perspective.
      It’s worth a read, definitely – I’m very curious what you’d think about it if you ever find a moment to read it 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It was my first book by her; wasn’t bad, and I’ll continue with the series, but it wasn’t perfect either – definitely for a solid dose of SF I’d turn somewhere else, from Asher to KSR to Stephenson 😉 But as a space opera it works quite well 🙂

      Why did she lose you?

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Hahaha, ok, I see where that comes from – here fortunately only one part of the book is about feelings, in a very YA insta-love, insta-hate style; but there’s enough backstabbing and political maneuvering that I could happily overlook that part.

          What I would love to see, though, is reasoning behind certain worldbuilding choices – besides a fair amount of planning I detect a cavalier attitude of putting whatever strikes one’s fancy. And I can’t let go of misappropriating Odysseus’s epithet to Persephone 😉 And look! Even though I avoided putting this particular criticism into my already long review, now you have to read it in comments anyway 🤣

          Liked by 3 people

          1. No worries. I don’t care, so you can rant and rave all you want and I’ll just nod and say “You’re so right!” 😉

            Elliot officially lost me with her Crossroads books, but really, I was done with her by about book 5 of her Crown of Stars septology.
            (love me some big words)

            Liked by 2 people

    1. I get that; there were parts here that seemed just so unforgivably lazy for me. But that’s most space operas in my experience – for example, Stephenson in Seveneves does the same, just changes Asian to Russian (which makes less sense, considering demographic trends – and basically all Western authors seem to forget about the growing populations of African countries or South America…)

      I wouldn’t recommend this to you in any case – I think you’d spit through your teeth for huge parts of it 😂

      Btw, my copy of Aurora is coming next week 😀

      Like

        1. To be fair, though, I think it’s difficult to create a totally original world that still must have derived somehow from ours. I like Asher because he bases his Polity on the basics of human nature, but neither he can escape the Western influence – he just brazenly incorporates it as an axiom 😂.

          Liked by 1 person

            1. The low tech ancient cultures are more of a lure – it doesn’t really play that big of a role. But I know what you mean and I agree – it’s either kind of lazy or an outright marketing ploy. And I would really appreciate some more thought going into the worldbuilding but I also see that it would be probably pretty hard to sell such a book in today’s market 😉

              Liked by 1 person

              1. I think the market is underestimated. Look at Seveneves or The Ministry for the Future: difficult books, and the authors are commercially succesful. Or think about Dune. If any, my even some my M. John Harrison reviews are well read. Granted, all these guys had years and years to build a fanbase, but still…

                Liked by 1 person

                1. I thought so too but I’m not so sure anymore. I mean I think people would read it, but publishers don’t want it, judging it too highbrow. Dune was published over half a century ago; KSR published many books read by a handful before he built his fanbase; and Seveneves is still a quite exclusive book, all things considered. This one goes more in the direction of the Expanse, which is very soft SF (which was one of the reasons I stopped reading it 😉)

                  Like

                  1. Mmm. I just checked some numbers for comparison: Seveneves 95.000 ratings, Ancillary Justice 82.000, The Fifth Season 150.000, Anathem 61.000, cryptonomicon 99.000, snow crash 237.000, a memory called empire 16.000, Leviathan Wakes 172.000, the handmaid’s tale 1.4 million, Recursion 110.000, and KSR has (only) 228.000 ratings in total, 2312 16.000, his Mars series still being the most popular. Dune 770.000

                    Liked by 1 person

                    1. Wolf Hall 167.000. these numbers are obviously still skewed by the age of peopke using Goodreads, but still, very surprising. 50 shades of Grey 1.9 mil, Normal People 411k, Cloud Atlas 217k, Bone clocks 86k

                      Liked by 1 person

                    2. Hunger Games 6 mil. 1984 3 mil. Neuromacer 262k, Foundation 411k, ender’s game 1.1 mil, the Martian 820k, hitchhiker 1.4 mil, ready player one 865k.

                      Okay, I’ll stop now. 😉

                      Liked by 1 person

                    3. Man, that’s depressing! Especially considering that Goodreads is not statistically representative… Maybe we should check sales if it’s possible? Would probably be a more reliable measure.
                      Some of these are probably required reading in high school or uni, so that skews count. Plus, i wonder if movies play role in reviews/reading – I’d say so based on that last batch…

                      Like

                    4. Movies for sure, high school too. Sales would be a better metric, but I know of no way to check sales.

                      On the other hand, as for the ratio in between the books, my guess is that Goodreads isn’t a bad way to gauge, the absolute numbers are pretty big for a sample.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    5. Yup; but let me tell you about my example. I’m an outlier probably, but I got to GR only recently and haven’t included in my ratings even a twentieth of the books I’ve read. So I tend to rate predominantly the freshly read books, and the old ones only when I remember about them, or are on some “classic” lists that I see by chance. What I’m trying to say is that my GR list would be pretty skewed and I suspect it wouldn’t be the only one 😉

                      Liked by 2 people

                    6. Yes; but in the meantime, more popular books will be even more popular because they’re everywhere, on recommendations list, classics, Goodreads choices etc., while less known books will remain in obscurity 😉 I don’t have a list of books I’ve read years ago, so I either have to remember them or be reminded of them, and it’s less probable for the lesser known titles.

                      TBH I’m not even sure I marked 2312 as read on GR… I’ll need to check that!

                      Like

  1. Very interesting, thanks for sharing! 🙂
    I’ve been curious about this book since I first saw it mentioned in the blogosphere, and from your review it looks as if it might turn out to be a fun read, if I can manage to overlook that touch of YA angst and what looks like an imbalance of plot vs. characterization. Knowing beforehand that I cannot expect anything too deep will certainly prove helpful… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel you’d actually like it quite a lot, probably more than me 😉 it’s not perfect, but it does scratch that space opera itch. You’ll find lots of similarities to the Expanse series, I expect 😀

      Thanks for reading, Maddalena! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have this book on my TBR for Sci-Fi Month and yours is the first mixed review I’ve read of this book. It’s interesting because most people seemed to love this one and reading more “mixed” opinions is very helpful!
    I have read one of Elliott’s previous work Black Wolves and it felt a bit YA in some parts, it’s good to know that it’s also the case with this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! 🙂
      It’s an enjoyable book; but the enjoyment will always vary according to your mileage. To you as a person who reads a lot of SF this book probably won’t feel very original – it didn’t to me.
      Yeah, the YA vibe is a bit peculiar here, as it’s mostly limited to one of the two perspectives – but I always feel this is a good-to-know type of info 🙂 Glad I could be of help!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. If you like YA and want to try some SF on top of it, you might be pleasantly surprised by Unconquerable Sun! 😀 As a YA it’s pretty solid, as a SF it’s entertaining – so if you have a chance, give it a try! 😀

      Like

  3. S.D. McKinley

    BTW, something I have been meaning to ask a person, instead of reading things online, is about NetGalley and how it works. Is it basically an approval thing and then you just pick books, or?

    LBGTQ really doesn’t bother me. But, I’m not gay. That’s really all I got to say about that! 😃

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup, you enter your details and your blog page, and you can basically start requesting books. Not all of your requests will be approved, and the request granted/review ratio is a factor, but you can grab there some cool books! Definitely worth it, and believe me, I’ve been sniffing around NG for a long time before I decided to give it a try 😉

      The LGBTQIA comment is in the review because other reviewers point this out as one of the most important features; we don’t have special tags for this topic, nor do we really pay much attention to whether it’s represented in books or not. Here I think it was a totally unimportant feature, so I just made note of this. If you want a SF book where it plays an actual role, Yoon Ha Lee’s trilogy The Machineries of Empire is a much better choice, IMO.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent thoughts on this one, Ola! It has always impressed me how you seem to effortlessly fact-check mythological/historical elements while reading SFF. I wish I could do that too hahaha It does sound like that it wasn’t a flawless read though but I’m glad to hear the positives outweighed the negative, especially the YA vibes you noticed here! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lashaan!
      I do love my mythology, that’s for sure 😉
      It’s an interesting book, enough that I actually intend to read the sequel – and if you don’t mind a fair bit of YA hormonal hurricanes along the way, you should be pretty fine with it too! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I only wish I had your knowledge of mythology and the like! I would no doubt read this on a very superficial level and probably think it was okay and although the YA vibe doesn’t particularly appeal to me the ‘soft sci-fi’ does.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😀
      It’s an enjoyable book and while the YA vibes were quite significant for me, most of the other reviewers didn’t seem to notice 😉 The sci-fi is very soft indeed, even going into the territory of science fantasy with the mythical monsters and the literally two-faced villains 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for providing us with another comprehensive review, Ola. It’s so convenient to have a trusted reader who looks at all the aspects. I’m afraid it slipped off my list when you said ‘no character development’. I don’t mind that in slick thrillers, but this doesn’t sound slick, it seems to have been quite hard work. I’ve enjoyed it vicariously, though. I learn so much when I follow your break-downs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Cath! 😀
      This one’s a popcorn book – an organic popcorn, maybe, with a special Dead Sea salt or homemade caramel or something like that, but the added oomph can’t disguise its simple nature 😉 I’d say your thriller hunch is spot on, with the added YA specification.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think that, at least for the moment, I would let this one pass. I was intrigued by the Alexander the Great references but.. It seems like this is not really the case.
    And even if what you wrote about the worldbuilding seem great, I am more on the characters persuasion (I can “set aside” the characters for the worldbuilding, it has happened before, but usually it is because there is something else going on with the worldbuilding. I recently finished Space Opera and I really enjoyed the book, even if I couldn’t care less for the characters. But the worldbuilding was amazing and there was all the “Adams/Pratchett’s vibe” going around and so I had a great time with it, but it is not something that happens a lot to me. Usually I need more from the characters). Sadly I am not so eager to meet Persephone, even if reading your words about her it was fun! And I am not a fan of drama queens either, so… Nope, I think I would pass this one, at least for now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, your Space Opera review made me very curious! 😀 Unconquerable Sun is plagued by an overabundance of ambition and not enough writing chops to pull the concept off but I must admit I’m still quite willing to read the sequels – so it wasn’t all bad 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. buriedinprint

    Even though I’ve never read one of her books, I have picked up a few along the way. (Something Dragon-y, I think?) It’s interesting that you say this had a YA vibe, given that she’s written so much YA. In a completely unrelated CanLit read over the summer, I came across some interviews with the author who spoke about how much he learned about maintaining readers’ interest levels, from the YA he’d written between two books for adults; I can see where that would be true, but I suppose it’s also true (and your comments bear this out) that one could take that too far, particularly on the angst score. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I might be one of those particularly sensitive to YA 😉 I think the problem with YA is that it’s become dominated by a one pattern – what you say about keeping the readers’ interest, about managing their expectations, is what to me kills the originality of this genre. It’s a bit like Harlequin romance thingy (not that I read any, but I’ve read a bit about writing them) – the reader picks up the book knowing perfectly well what will be inside – even down to speech patterns and metaphors used. And that’s why they pick it up, it’s like comfort food, a special type of chocolate that makes them feel better. I’m afraid most of YA goes in this direction, and the whiffs of this is what makes me wary.

      Like

    1. I’m pretty sure that you wouldn’t like this one too much 😂 Frankly this one liner is misleading and actually out me off this book as well, as I see no point in altering gender or race or age or any other demographic or psychological characteristic of a historical figure… I’m happy to read about characters inspired by historical figures, or composites, or simply historical figures themselves, provided they’re well researched – but this kind of advertising feels false to me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s precisely my views on the advertising as well. I also feel that, advertising of ‘it’s basically this, but in spaaaaaaaace’ is a way of saying ‘our author really doesn’t have a great deal going for them, but if you like such and such, you should probably give this a go.’ Just feels lazy to me.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Very true!
          I think that whoever comes up with such descriptions actually does a disservice to the book. It’s like saying: “it’s so unoriginal that you’ve read this a bazillion of times before – and that’s how we’re sure you’re gonna like it!” 😉

          Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s