The first book in a new trilogy billed as ‘gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space’, Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun is both a complex political thriller and an action-packed coming of age story, wrapped up in a grand, sweeping space opera. Although long caught between the haughty Yele League and the vast, domineering Phene Empire, the Republic of Chaonia is a growing power. Fresh from her first military victory, Princess Sun – heir to Chaonia’s ruthless Queen-Marshal Eirene – is desperate to prove herself to her demanding mother and enigmatic father. As conflict with the Phene becomes increasingly likely, however, and Sun chafes at being kept away from the front lines, she and her Companions soon find themselves caught up in deadly court politics and a murky web of conspiracies and lies.
As befits a tale of intrigue, espionage and political maneuvering this is fairly complex in places, with lots of information to process about empires, ideologies, technology and character identities, and it throws the reader in at the deep end with little in the way of up-front explanation. It’s the sort of story that asks you to trust it, however, and rewards your patience with a richly detailed world that slowly unveils as the book progresses. The murky politics takes careful untangling but proves brilliantly devious and twisty, and as it gradually makes sense, so too do the histories and various cultural identities of this setting come into focus. Elliott takes an elegant, light-touch approach to portraying a deeply believable world with sexuality and gender equality baked in but never dominating, allowing the character dynamics and the politics to take centre stage as themes of genetic engineering, social inequality and familial obligation are all explored along the way.
Elliott uses multiple viewpoint characters and different perspectives, each with a clear, distinct voice and offering something different to the ongoing story. As the key protagonist, Sun provides the driving force for the narrative – intense, often impulsive, engaging despite the inherent coldness of her determination. In contrast, Perspehone – a reluctant member of Sun’s inner circle of Companions – provides warmth and humanity, as does Apame, a skilled but slightly hapless Phene pilot who helps to humanise the ‘enemy’ faction. These characters and more are all driven to achieve their goals by a willingness to break social convention, and utter determination to forge their own paths. They’re flawed and relatable, able to do their own thing, make mistakes, suffer the consequences and come back stronger, and almost all of them have their own moments of coming of age, understanding that the truths they thought they knew were in fact nothing of the sort.
This is a story that manages to be both brilliantly character-driven and breathlessly exciting. It’s packed full of pacy action sequences which draw the various characters together, split them apart, and give the reader all manner of opportunities to get to know them, never offering action just for the sake of it. There’s a darkness to the core narrative that helps build up an overarching sense of considerable danger, and while they’re only used sparingly the sinister Riders – members of the Phene ruling caste – are properly creepy. The brisk pace, dizzying twists and turns, well-developed relationships and thrilling moments of action all combine to ensure it’s never too bleak, however, and it’s full of clever touches like the modern cultural references scattered throughout (see how many real-world song lyrics you can spot), and interesting uses of media for performance and propaganda.
If you’re familiar with Greek history then you’ll no doubt spot the references here, but it’s far from a requirement to enjoy this. While the political and historical touchstones are suitably linked to Alexander (there’s even a ship called the Boukephalas), the world they’re set in is influenced at least as much by East Asia in its architecture and naming conventions, and narratively speaking this has all the elements needed to make for a fantastic story in its own right. If ambitious, expansive, detailed space opera is your thing, and you like a novel with masses of brilliant female characters that keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish, Unconquerable Sun comes highly recommended. As the first part of a trilogy, it sets a high bar but promises big things to come.
Many thanks to Kate Elliott and Head of Zeus/Ad Astra for providing a review copy of Unconquerable Sun in exchange for an honest review.
Check out Michael’s companion article to this review over at Track of Words.
Read Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliot