Kate Elliott’s Furious Heaven is a big, richly detailed reworking in space of the career of Alexander the Great, though you don’t need to know that background to enjoy this epic space adventure. At more than 700 pages, it’s long but never tedious, and each chapter repays close reading. In this volume Sun Shan, daughter of the ruthless and brilliantly strategic Eirene, takes her place as queen-marshal of Chaonia, then at once sets in motion her greatest challenge, conquering the extensive and much richer Phene empire. Furious Heaven picks up a few weeks after the ending of Unconquerable Sun, and it brilliantly interweaves character studies with palace intrigue, a study in power, deep action and the realistic staging of many battle scenes.
As the story opens, we see Sun, still a princess, drilling her companions, each of whom is the scion of one of the great houses of Chaonia, on the guiding precepts of the republic’s culture. (This is a republic in name only since it is ruled by a monarch supported by a smalll number of aristocratic families.) These scenes establish the dramatic interplay among the companions while bringing out a critical theme underlying the series, the role of destiny. While discussing the “knot of Lady Chaos” in the fortunes of humans, they quote lines that are referred to again and again:
“Do humans live in harmony with fate? Or do they suffer powerless in life as fate’s demands adhere to a set pattern? We are the spears cast at the furious heaven.”Furious Heaven, Kindle edition, Location 24
Each of Sun’s companions, though battle hardened, still just recently out of the academy, react in their own ways during the discussion to impress the princess but often seem more interested in baiting each other. We see Sun’s world in Furious Heaven through many perspectives, but only one in the first person, that of Persephone Lee. She is the wry prankster who has trouble taking philosophical discussions seriously but proves herself intrepid in battle and clever in strategy. What strikes me about these early scenes is how performative life is in this aristocratic court. The companions try to shine with their knowledge, their impeccable good looks or their fame as literal performers in the public eye. For the “wasp” cameras of the Channel Idol (the universal web that everyone is wired into) continually record all their public appearances.
Persephone is the one who sees through the ingratiating efforts of her peers and constantly makes fun of them. Kate Elliott is especially brilliant at capturing those brief moments that reveal so much about each character, and Persephone is her most mordant critic. Here she watches as one of the aspiring companions tries to cultivate an important person:
“Water flows downhill along the path of least resistance. Jade Kim flows toward those most vulnerable to a slick combination of beauty and brilliance. Beneath the gazebo where we were so recently discussing fate and destiny, Jade pivots to chatting up the older Companions with the serious suck-up look that fooled our teachers at the academy. Sure, the teachers admired Jade’s top scores, but it was the performative humility that snagged them.”Furious Heaven, Kindle edition, Location 166
Of course, it is Sun herself, especially after she becomes ruler of Chaonia, whose life is most fully performative. She is constantly under pressure to convince her military leaders, many of whom still see her as young and impulsive, that her bold ideas of attacking the Phene empire are based on sound strategy and are completely feasible. She makes brilliant speeches to win them over and at other times, before the Idol cameras, to inspire the people of Chaonia to make the sacrifices war calls for. Only occasionally do we get a private glimpse of the dangerous side of her impulsiveness, in particular, when she makes an unjust accusation against her Companion and lover, Hetty.
“Sun’s expression darkened with a surge of temper. “I didn’t think you would doubt my judgment!” She shook her arm out of Hetty’s grasp and went in, dragging the gate shut behind her. Hetty was shaken by Sun’s tone. By the gesture of closing the door. She wanted to say it wasn’t Sun she doubted, but Prince João, but it was too late. Once Sun had made a decision it was always too late to stop her from plunging into the fray.”Furious Heaven, Kindle edition. Location 2668
This is a nice bit of foreshadowing of what would likely come in the next book in the Sun/Alexander series. As she moves from battle to battle, Sun imposes higher and higher costs of her armies and fleets and is badly wounded herself, but victory is her ultimate rationale – conquering where no one thought it possible to extend the reach of Chaonian power, figuratively cutting through the knot of destiny.
Furious Heaven also brings us inside the Phene empire, mostly through the point of view of a Lieutenant Apama At Sabao, who finds herself thrust from her fighting unit into the midst of the highest council of Phene, that of the Riders. One of the principal Riders had taken her out of her unit because he was her father and wanted to break with tradition by acknowledging her as his daughter and bringing her into the governing circle, in part so that she could be a companion to an adolescent Rider.
A symbiont elite, the Riders are normal Phene who at a young age have a second being implanted on their back. The Rider’s face attaches to the back of the Phene’s head, and the two take turns controlling the mind of the symbiont. The face of a Rider is like a sketch of a normal one, with features that are just slits, though, when open, the eyes “were a dark screen tuned to unfathomable frequencies.” Riders are the seers guiding the affairs of the empire and so kept carefully under guard. They have the unique ability to communicate instantaneously with other Riders, thus giving the Phene an enormous military advantage that has enabled them to build their great empire. Through Apama, we get to know a young Rider and the distinctive personalities of its dual beings. This helps to humanize these otherwise mysterious entities. It becomes a central goal of Chaonia to learn the mysteries of Rider communication to achieve a decisive advantage over the Phene.
The Phene have also modified some humans with advanced neural networks throughout their bodies to make them super soldiers. At certain formal commands, these Gatoi are completely entrained to the will of their superiors and cannot disobey. Zizou is a Gatoi who figured prominently in Unconquerable Sun and in this novel undergoes one of the most interesting character transitions. It is he who questions his role most profoundly and, in one of the best scenes of the book, refuses to carry out a terrible command. He is then formally broken out of the Gatoi ranks by his superior and has to find a new identity and role, using his heretofore secret birthname, Kurash.
This deepens the theme of the struggle between a prescribed role and the drives of personality that dominate so many lives in this novel, from Persephone to Kurash to Apama, to the young rider, and Sun herself, among others.
Once the action kicks into high gear after Sun ascends to power, it is non-stop and brilliantly executed, whether at the scale of space battles in the attack on the Phene empire, the hand-to-hand combat on a single ship or an individual confrontation. They are all gripping. This is no sagging middle book of a trilogy but a completely compelling chapter in the life of Sun and the myriad people influenced and changed forever by her conquests. There’s plenty of intricate palace intrigue and elaborate scenarios of betrayal and war that come to a powerful climax as Sun tries to achieve her impossible goal of challenging fate itself. Furious Heaven is that rare space adventure that is as interesting for its characters as for its action.
My thanks to Tor Books and Net Galley for an advance review copy of Furious Heaven as the basis for this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.