Unconquerable Sun: Needs more context

Unconquerable Sun by Kate ElliottUnconquerable Sun by Kate ElliottUnconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

Unconquerable Sun (2020) is the latest YA novel from Kate Elliott, the first novel in THE SUN CHRONICLES, and is nominated for a 2021 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction novel. The conceit is that Elliott has gender-flipped the historical narrative of Alexander the Great, adding a space opera setting full of galaxy-spanning politics and military battles, along with the complications created by unimaginably wealthy and privileged people.

Unfortunately, this one was not a success for me. Unconquerable Sun is told from three points-of-view: Princess Sun, daughter of queen-marshal Eirene of the Republic of Chaonia; Persephone Lee, a military cadet with a complicated family history; and Apama At Sabao, an enemy combatant whose importance to the greater struggle is only hinted at in this volume. Sun’s chapters are in third-person past perspective, limiting our understanding of her motivations and actions, to the detriment of the storytelling. She’s too perfect, too competent in every situation Elliott provides no matter what’s happening, and it’s difficult to see how Sun’s mother is supposed to be such an amazing leader when the queen-marshal is also the type of person to drunkenly attempt the murder of people at her own wedding party — with a laser built into one of her ocular cavities, no less.

Persephone’s chapters are in first-person present perspective, frequently covering the same events or conversations covered in Sun’s chapters, and are often derailed by her insta-lust over every attractive human she encounters. I expected much more to be made of her potential threat to Sun, given her family’s prominent role within Eirene’s empire, and the fact that Persephone is kept in close proximity to Sun under the idea that the best way to deal with a dangerous weapon is to make it your own asset. A lot of foundation-building goes on in this installment, with much happening over what is a surprisingly short amount of time, and yet very little actually seems to happen until the last few chapters.

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott

Apama At Sabao’s contributions are sporadically thrown in, interrupting Sun and Persephone’s antics with little context for who she is, what her side in the conflict wants, or what their grievances are. She has four arms, she’s a lieutenant and a gifted fighter with, again, a complicated and barely-explained family history, but I never got a good sense for why her story matters to the larger framework. I wanted a lot more information about her, and could easily have done with less of Princess Sun haring off after ways to prove that she’s a suitable heir or Persephone moping over being forced into Sun’s circle of Companions.

There are, certainly, compelling swirls of intrigue and double- or triple-dealing within Unconquerable Sun, and it’s clear that literally anyone might be working against Sun’s interests (either actively or not, as the case may be). I would have appreciated some deeper insight into what drives her, her insecurities, and what she hopes to gain from everything she does, so that she could rise above being a nearly-perfect narrative cipher. (I’m not sure that “teenaged Princess Sun is the finest military genius ever to command a starship and no one cares if she’s queer” is enough of a character bio to hang a hat on.) It’s hard to worry over or root for a character who is easily the equal of anyone she meets in any type of battle and whose primary focus seems to be gaining the approval of her mother without any on-page contribution to the reader’s understanding of her motivations or conflicts. Moreover, I desperately wanted more information about the ongoing conflict between the Chaonian Republic and its enemies, both internal and external, in order to provide context for everything that creates the backdrop and impetus for who and what Sun is.

The weak characterizations outweighed the interest created by the pan-Asian influence on worldbuilding, in my mind, and I kept wishing Elliott had put more effort into exploring elements of socio-political commentary within Unconquerable Sun. But, again, your mileage may vary.  The second volume, currently titled Furious Heaven and slated for release in 2022, may well bring the ongoing galactic war into greater focus and reveal more of what Sun’s goals are. I hope that readers who enjoy Unconquerable Sun will find more of the same in that book.

Published in 2020. GENDER-SPUN ALEXANDER THE GREAT ON AN INTERSTELLAR SCALE. Princess Sun has finally come of age. Growing up in the shadow of her mother, Eirene, has been no easy task. The legendary queen-marshal did what everyone thought impossible: expel the invaders and build Chaonia into a magnificent republic, one to be respected—and feared. But the cutthroat ambassador corps and conniving noble houses have never ceased to scheme—and they have plans that need Sun to be removed as heir, or better yet, dead. To survive, the princess must rely on her wits and companions: her biggest rival, her secret lover, and a dangerous prisoner of war. Take the brilliance and cunning courage of Princess Leia—add in a dazzling futuristic setting where pop culture and propaganda are one and the same—and hold on tight: This is the space opera you’ve been waiting for.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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