Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliot is an interstellar military science-fiction novel that marks the beginning of a new series, the Sun Chronicles. This book shows an interesting combination of historical inspiration and inventive world building that comes together to create an action filled adventure filled with massive helping of intrigue. As such, I will initially look at the book itself, then examine Elliot’s world-building a bit deeper.
CW for Graphic Violence including On-screen Character Death and War, Bigotry and Racism, Depictions of Poverty, Depictions of Refugees and Refugee Camps, Familial Manipulation and Blackmail, Discussion of Sex Workers, Depiction of a Funeral, Unwilling use of Mental Programing and Mental Control technologies, Body Horror
The Rise of a Conqueror?
The promotional material for this novel suggest that it is in many ways a gender-bent Alexander the Great story with the title character Sun being the Alexander analog. In many ways I can see the author’s inspiration. The Republic of Chaonia uses the Macedonian tradition of important figures having Companions (Somatophylakes). These are advisors and bodyguards drawn from the nation’s notables and these Companions gain political and military influence because of their relationship to the heir or monarch. In the case of this story, each of the Companions also have a cee-cee or Companion’s Companion.
As might be expected for an Alexander the Great-inspired story, military action takes up a good portion of the story. However, I suspect this novel will not have as wide appeal among the military sci-fi crowd then it might seem at first glance. The age of the characters and nature of much of the action has the feel of a YA novel rather than a space opera. Many of the characters are still finding themselves and the plot is more evenly split between these character moments rather than focusing heavily on the interstellar politics and action as I might expect for a military space opera.
Instead, the essence of Unconquerable Sun is a subterfuge buffet. Very few characters in this story are what they appear to be. There is constant social manipulation, espionage, and blackmail going on. Even Sun’s closest companions are frequently questioned in their loyalty or the sincerity of their motivations. The military action mentioned previously is mostly forced upon the characters having to react to the subterfuge of others within the Republic and without.
While all of this is enjoyable, it is almost too much. It can be hard to keep up with the large cast, the background manipulations going on, and hidden motivations. After an initial set-up, the story screams along with only a few moments of calm. These few moments of calm are good for improving our knowledge with the many characters, but are also often emotionally charged. This leaves the reader with little time to recover. The final quarter, while impactful, seemed to lose a bit of momentum to me. I will confess that this loss of momentum may be me starting to burn out and thus disengaging, but this likely mirrors the growing levels of exhaustion that the characters are experiencing having been in almost constant action from the begining.
Persephonie Lee and Zizou were both enjoyable characters that serve as significant POV characters. An interesting part of the narration was that the tense and grammar used in the story changed between variations on third and first person depending on the character serving as the POV. I feel this improves the readers relationship with Perse and Zizou in particular, while leaving Sun at more of a distance. Some may find this an annoyance, but I honestly did not notice this choice until I was most of the way through the book. I also wish that we had spent more time with the one Phene POV character in the book, but I suspect they will be playing a much larger role in the next novel as either a traitor or as a foil to Sun and her companions.
Building Sun’s World
The Macedonia-Chaonia parallels I mentioned before can also be seen in some of the characters. Sun herself has many characteristics that are commonly attributed to Alexander. She has a self-assured sense of destiny reaching high levels of arrogance, in reckless in impulsive moments but demonstrates brilliance when calm-minded, and has extreme confidence in her Companions. Even Sun's name and the book title harkens to Alexander's tendency to associate himself with deities like Helios and Ra, resulting in his image being used to depict gods such as as Sol Invictus in the Roman Empire centuries after his death.
Sun's mother, Queen Marshal Eirene, also shows many physical and personality parallels to Philip II, Alexander’s father. Sun’s companion and lover Hestia shows similarities to Alexander’s close relationship with Hephaestion and I suspect other Companions show hints of the future Diadochi.
That said, many elements found in this story are not Macedonian. The culture and religions of the Republic and its surrounding nations draw much more heavily from Asian and post-classical European influences. The in-universe explanation is that these cultural influences come from a long-distant “Celestial Empire.” Many names and the ancestor worship, traditions, and waterside cremation practices of the Republic show clear East and South Asian influences and music I noticed in the story references English-language pop and rock music.
The Republic’s neighbors of the Yele League and the Phene Empire show rough parallels to the Boeotian League and Achaemenid Empire when it comes to the diplomatic position the Republic of Chaonia finds itself in at the beginning of the story. However, a look the Phene Empire seems to show Catholic saints in their religion and Filipino cultural influences. The Gatoi seem to have Manchu or Central Asian inspiration with a nomadic ship-bound life and a clannish society organized in Banners and the Yele League seems to have influences from ancient Greece and and a number of other places in Earth's history.
These different Earth cultures have combined and merged in unusual ways as time, distance and the loss of Earth itself separate them from their cultures of origin. This is a universe where humanity mastered and then some societies rejected genetic manipulation and cloning. Travel between the stars is accomplished by beacons, artificial wormholes anchored to planets that were created by a past society that may have been the first successors to the Celestial Empire. Communication and media relies on both audio-visual media and networked mental implants. Much of the social media of the relies on influence and idolization of great achievers similar to modern pop culture including ongoing competitions between influencers.
All told, I enjoyed the story and give Unconquerable Sun a score of 7/10. I suspect that my score may improve as I continue to the next novel. Speaking of which, the sequel Furious Heaven is slated to come out March 27th, 2022.