Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott
a review by Rich Horton
Unconquerable Sun is the first in a new Space Opera trilogy from Kate Elliott. Thus it joins a quite remarkable list of recent Space Operas, many or most by women -- books from Arkady Martine, K. B. Wagers, Ann Leckie, Elizabeth Moon, Elizabeth Bear, Aliette de Bodard, Kameron Hurley, Karen Lord; though of course by men too, such as Yoon Ha Lee, Tim Pratt, John Scalzi, and Gareth Powell. I am confident that that list could be much longer.
How does it stack up in this company? The short answer is, very well. For the longer answer, I will start with my reservations: it cannot be said that the book avoids certain Space Opera cliches. The title character is a Princess, to begin with -- of a comity that calls itself a republic. (And, yes, the book does eventually explore at least somewhat the contradictions implied therein.) Beyond that, well, the main characters are all very special people, At least three of them (none of them the true central characters, but all important secondary characters) are repeatedly described as implausibly physically beautiful. Beyond that, the characters collectively are remarkably accomplished. As for the plot and action and space battles -- there is a good deal of coincidence and good fortune driving events. Let me add -- every one of these statements is true of many many Space Operas, going back to the beginning. (Indeed, it's true of many books, period.) One might say it's part of the DNA of the genre. We know what we're getting into, and we shouldn't complain.
Well, that last paragraph reads a tad mean. And I don't really want it to come off that way. Because given all that, Unconquerable Sun is both terrifically exciting, and full of neat ideas, unexpected revelations, and characters we really like being with. It is, I think, a very succesful piece of SF. It doesn't really break new ground, but it uses its familiar tropes expertly, and I will certainly be reading the rest of the series.
What is the book about? The title character, Princess Sun, the heir to the throne of the Republic of Chaonia, is 20, and as the book opens has just returned from leading a successful military action against Chaonia's principal rival, the Phene Empire. Over time we learn that Chaonia is a smaller federation of Solar Systems, and that Sun's mother, the Queen-Marshal Eirene, has managed to expand its reach, and forge alliances or at least detentes with important polities. Sun is her heir, but her position is perhaps precarious, because her father, Prince Joao, is a Gatoi, part of a ship-dwelling group who often serve as mercenaries for the Phene. Eirene, who already has several consorts, may be pursuing another marriage. And the rival Lee family, who control the security apparatus of Chaonia, have their own interests in the heirship. All interesting enough (and to be honest, pretty standard.)
Sun quickly finds herself sidelined to a tour of shipyards, and is furious. Meanwhile, we are introduced to further points of view. One is Persephone Lee, twin sister of one of Sun's formal "Companions", Perseus Lee. Persephone, however, has escaped her family, and secretly enrolled at CeDCA, a military academy, and is about to graduate. Another POV, in chapters headed "A Dispatch from the Enemy", is Apama At Sabao, also a young military trainee, but for the Phene Empire -- and she is suddenly sent on a secret mission to make a surprise attack on Chaonian installations. The fourth major POV character is Zizou, a captured Gatoi mercenary. He has been taken in an attempt to study -- and hopefully subvert -- a treatment that Prince Joao believes the Phene give to the Gatoi, greatly enhancing their strength but also including a compulsion to fight to the death, and to always blindly obey the orders of their Phene commanders.
Soon events transpire that bring all these threads together -- Sun's group of companions is attacked, and Perseus Lee is one of the victims. Persephone, on the verge of graduation, learns she has not truly escaped her family, as she is summoned home to replace her brother as one of Sun's companions -- and also, to her horror, to take up a position as her Aunt's heir to the Governorship of Lee House. Zizou is stolen by the Lee family, in an attempt to embarrass Sun, and so also her father -- but Sun manages to gain his loyalty instead. Realizing that she is potentially under more direct attack (possibly from rival factions in Chaonia -- not just from the enemy), Sun and her group of companions make an escape, and for perhaps implausible but terribly exciting reasons manage to be in the right place at the right time to at least blunt the surprise Phene attack ... and, and, and -- the action is truly nonstop from this point, very nicely done, truly gripping. Mixed into this, of course, are the personal relationships of these characters -- especially those in Sun's entourage. Sun herself has taken her companion Hettie as a lover, which is frowned upon. Sun's mother has several, to some extent dynastic, marriages. And Persephone Lee (my personal favorite character by far) begins to form a bond with another character that will clearly be a fulcrum in coming books.
I have said little about this stellar milieu. It seems the result of a diaspora from a poisoned Earth (most likely), which founded the Celestial Empire, based around a set of stars connnected by a "beacon network" -- which seems to be a set of artifical wormhole connections left by an older race. So far, so familiar, to be sure -- and the next fillip, that the Celestial Empire collapsed when a subset of beacon connections failed reminded me of Scalzi's Collapsing Empire. This is not a complaint -- all these elements, this furniture if you will, are part of the toolset SF writers use, and they are used nicely here. One element Elliott adds is another means of faster than light travel, rarely used because it's much slower than the beacons -- but also independent of them. The humans who have settled these stars use some degree of genetic engineering. For example, it goes unremarked that children are routinely born to same sex couples using genetic material from both parents (and even a third.) Cloning is forbidden in Chaonia, but it's clearly possible. The Phene Empire is more eager to use this tech -- most Phene have four arms, for one thing, and some (including Apama's mother) were born with a sort of armored shell. They have developed as well another, creepy, capability which looms very large towards the end of the novel. Much of this is not really fully developed in this book, but it has the clear potential to be a major issue in the rest of the trilogy. And it's all well handled, integrated into the book with the seamless skill of a veteran SF writer.
An important subtheme of the book, and presumably the trilogy, is exploring -- at least to a degree -- the injustices in even the supposedly "good" polity of Chaonia. (Note that how "good" Chaonia is, and how "bad" the Phene empire are, at least is not a matter of black and white.) Some of Sun's companions, or their "CCs", give us -- and Sun -- some insight into the contradictions in Chaonian society, and indeed Apama's situation hints at some ethnic prejudice in the Phene Empire. I suspect these aspects too will be more important in future volumes.
So, as I said, this was a tremendously fun read. The start is a little bit slow -- but for good reasons I think -- and once the engine of the plot is ignited, it's fast moving and involving. It's unashamedly full bore Space Opera, with as I've noted some of familiar implausibilities and conventions of that subgenre, and they are nicely deployed.