From the moment an enemy fighter squadron breaks out of the sky for a sneak attack on a key industrial park, Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun delivers an intricate yet fast paced adventure like few I’ve ever read. The 20 year-old Princess Sun, heir to Chaonia’s terrifying queen-marshall, Eirene, is put to the test again and again as she fights her way through spectacular space battles backed by her oddball retinue of a half-dozen sons and daughters of ruling houses.
Elliott skillfully shifts perspectives between Sun, in a third person narrative, and Persephone Lee, in the first person, interweaving these major points of view with glimpses through the eyes of a few other characters. The worlds of Chaonia, their arch-enemies the Phene Empire and other peoples are richly imagined, immersing us in details of culture, language, politics, religion and class structure, both human and alien.
It’s a lot to take in, and we learn some of it from info-dumps early on, but most comes through the experiences of the many characters we meet in the course of this teeming first novel of a projected trilogy. Because there is a lot of action in Unconquerable Sun and dozens of characters we meet along the way, there is little chance for in-depth treatment of any of them.
Even though we follow Princess Sun closely, she remains mysteriously self-contained. We know her by her temper, which she keeps reminding herself she has to control, and her incredible resourcefulness and quick thinking on a comprehensive scale in battle.
Persephone is much more accessible and fun to get to know, as we see her life turned upside down yet feel her coming out of it with a renewed sense of herself. There is a character arc there that I can warm to. But too many others are known through surface features, like the odd hat one wears, another’s remarkable beauty, another’s poise and readiness to deal with any situation, and another who is a musical idol, always carrying his ukulele, ready to perform at an instant’s notice and admired as much for his perfect looks as his singing ability.
Appropriately, Sun and her retinue are constant stars on the broadcast Idol program, surrounded as they are by the tiny wasp cameras that seem to record almost everything they do. This can be entertaining, but there are many times I wanted to get behind the performance aspect of their lives and dig deeper.
Nonetheless, there are many standout characters, even if I am left wanting to know more about them. One of these is a Gatoi or banner soldier, an engineered race of super soldiers who are strictly bound by complex ties of loyalty, at least in their own minds. We learn about them through Zizou, who becomes a special frenemy of Persephone and swears loyalty to Sun. It is especially difficult to watch him be manipulated by Phene engineering and the actions of another strange race of literally two-faced beings called Riders, all while he is desperately trying to fulfill his loyalty oath to Sun and respond to the emerging friendship with Persephone.
The part of Unconquerable Sun I found a bit strange was an extended chase sequence after an attempted assassination. It’s skillfully done but mostly takes place on good old-fashioned boats and trains as Sun and her retinue keep outwitting pursuing gendarmes, maneuvering in and out of cars and stations.
In a high tech universe where star systems are joined by remnants of an elaborate portal system of “beacons” and where aircars and special weaponry and genetic controls suggest a very advanced civilization, it seemed a bit odd to me to be so grounded in scenes I could imagine from my days as a subway rider in New York. That’s probably just me, though. The action is non-stop.
My reservations were swept aside when the action shifted from court intrigues in Chaonia to the massive attack on its systems by the Phene Empire. What follows is a brilliantly imagined and complex set of battle maneuvers in space that turn a Chaonian disaster into a massive defeat for the Phene.
A lot has been made of the parallels between the life of Alexander the Great and the Princess Sun, but I think that had more to do with the inspiration that moved Kate Elliott to produce this great story than any detailed resemblance to the Macedonian conqueror. There are corresponding events in Alexander’s life that loosely track Elliott’s novel, but you don’t have to know that history to enjoy this book.
What does come through is Sun’s boldness, strategic thinking and determination to defeat a great empire. Unconquerable Sun embraces the same diversity of cultures and peoples that Alexander’s conquests spanned, but this book can be enjoyed completely on its own terms. It records the beginning of Sun’s efforts to prove herself to an unapproachable mother and distant father. There’s a lot more to come, and it promises to be an exciting space epic.