Review: Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott

Russ Allbery eagle at
Mon Sep 21 20:00:01 PDT 2020

Unconquerable Sun
by Kate Elliott

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

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
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 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

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

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

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 is by far the most interesting 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


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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