Author: Kate Elliott
Title: Unconquerable Sun
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.