Review: Unconquerable Sun

Unconquerable SunKate Elliott’s most recent novel, 2020’s Unconquerable Sun, has been marketed fairly extensively as “gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space”. I have to say that Alexander the Great as a cultural touchstone means little to me: about the only two things I knew about him before looking at his Wikipedia page last night were that he had a horse called Bucephalus and that he was really excellent at conquering other nations. I’ve certainly never come across a tradition of Alexander the Great literature (a tradition like the Matter of Britain, say, or the endless readaptations of Shakespeare or Austen or Grimm fairytales); but given his military reputation, and specifically his reputation for conquest, I have to say that science fiction, a genre whose most characteristic impulses sprang directly from colonialism, seems a natural choice for adapting and examining his story.

Elliott’s Alexander analogue is Sun, Princess of the Republic of Chaonia, a nation that has recently driven out the occupying Phene Empire and which is now in the process of expanding into Phene territory. Sun is desperate to prove her military acumen to her mother, an ambition that’s complicated by the fact that her father isn’t Chaonian, exposing Sun to suspicion and leaving her vulnerable should her mother choose to marry again. Her father, meanwhile, a prince of the space-nomadic Gatoi, is working on a top-secret project researching the Phene Empire’s use of Gatoi soldiers, and whether the Gatoi’s famous loyalty to their employers has a more sinister origin than the Phene would have their neighbours believe.

Unconquerable Sun, then, is a space opera/military SF novel that’s centrally concerned with power, conquest and the machinery of war. What’s particularly interesting about it is that, despite Sun’s place at the centre of the text (along with her hand-picked, high-status Companions) and the narrative status she’s given by analogy with Alexander the Great, the novel isn’t necessarily wholly on her side. In fact we have three point of view characters here: Sun herself; a woman named Persephone Lee who has attempted to disown her powerful Chaonian family in order to attend military academy; and Apama, a newly-fledged Phene pilot who’s assigned to a major campaign against Chaonia. Apama and Sun are obviously on opposite sides, and yet both are sympathetic; Persephone’s story draws attention to the unprincipled self-interest at work among Chaonia’s ruling families, effectively the social order that Sun is fighting for.

The idea that Chaonia is perhaps not fully a force for good is further reinforced by the glimpses we get of everyday life there. Although full citizens seem to have a relatively high standard of living –public transport is free, for example, albeit as part of the war effort – the celebration of royal occasions such as the queen-marshal’s wedding is mandatory. And one of Sun’s bodyguards, Ti, is the daughter of refugees; her willingness to put herself in extreme danger, even to die, in order to collect her paycheck for her family, is an indication of how desperate their situation is; an indication that’s confirmed when we see the off-world refugee camp where they live later on in the novel, where even fresh air is rationed for non-citizens.

There is, in other words, a nice sense of roundedness to Unconquerable Sun: it’s interested in complicating simple notions of good and bad, heroism and villainy, the conqueror and the conquered. That roundedness extends to the queer representation we get in the novel: same-gender relationships are unremarkable, and Sun’s mother the queen-marshal has at least two spouses that we know of (one male, one female). It’s there, too, in the attempt Elliott has made to depict a version of the future that is non-Western: Chaonian culture in particular has a vaguely Asian flavour, although it is just that, flavour, rather than anything more substantial.

That, and other flaws, make this a solid novel rather than an exceptional one: on a sentence level the writing is a little clumsy – not terrible, just insufficiently harmonious – and Elliott is unfortunately prone to infodump. I also think Elliott could have perhaps done more with her historical premise: as it is the Alexander the Great parallels feel more like an Easter egg for history buffs than anything that actually informs the novel thematically or metatextually. But I enjoyed the crunchiness of it, its willingness to complicate its readers’ preconceptions; to show us a full picture of a universe at war, and who loses and who gains from that. Its awareness of axes of power, social and political, and how they operate on ordinary people both civilian and military. I’m moderately surprised this wasn’t on the Hugo ballot this year; Elliott’s a recognised name in SFF at the moment, and Unconquerable Sun is precisely the kind of novel that Hugo voters are rewarding right now. In any case, I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

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