Review: Furious Heaven, by Kate Elliott

Russ Allbery eagle at
Wed Jun 21 20:38:41 PDT 2023

Furious Heaven
by Kate Elliott

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

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 she doesn't just understand use
the power of symbolism and spectacle; 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

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


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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