Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: East Asian-coded cast, sapphic MC, F/F, bi/pansexual secondary character, secondary polyamory/polygamy, extremely minor nonbinary rep
PoV: Third-person, past tense; first-person, present-tense; multiple PoVs
GENDER-SWAPPED ALEXANDER THE GREAT ON AN INTERSTELLAR SCALE
Princess Sun has finally come of age.
Growing up in the shadow of her mother, Eirene, has been no easy task. The legendary queen-marshal did what everyone thought impossible: expel the invaders and build Chaonia into a magnificent republic, one to be respected—and feared.
But the cutthroat ambassador corps and conniving noble houses have never ceased to scheme—and they have plans that need Sun to be removed as heir, or better yet, dead.
To survive, the princess must rely on her wits and companions: her biggest rival, her secret lover, and a dangerous prisoner of war.
Take the brilliance and cunning courage of Princess Leia—add in a dazzling futuristic setting where pop culture and propaganda are one and the same—and hold on tight:
This is the space opera you’ve been waiting for.
~America’s Got Talent, but it’s princesses outwitting treachery
~literally two-faced characters
~all the intrigue you could possibly ask for
~Persephone, the goddess of snark
If you’ve heard of Unconquerable Sun before, you’ve probably heard it described as ‘genderbent Alexander the Great in space!’ That was how it was pitched to us, the general internet, years before it arrived on shelves.
And I’ll confess right now: I don’t know a whole lot about Alexander the Great. Baby!Sia was only interested in him at all because one of her books insisted that Bucephalus, Alexander’s famous steed, was a unicorn. (A factoid with a 99.9% likelihood of being, alas, untrue.) Later, he came into my orbit again as having been a massively influential queer man, at a time when I was looking for queer historical figures. (Unlike the unicorn, his being queer has a 99.9% probability of being true.) I know he conquered a whole swathe of the world known to him, is said to have mourned the destruction of the Sacred Band of Thebes by his own army, and that there are/were probably quite a lot of Libraries of Alexandria, actually, because he left a city called Alexandria everywhere he went. (And presumably at least some of the non-Egyptian ones had libraries too!)
That was more than enough to know that I desperately wanted to read this book!
(And if you know nothing about Alexander the Great at all? Fear not! Because you do not need to.)
Princess Sun is the coolly reserved yet powerfully charismatic heir to the republic of Chaonia, a small coalition of planets caught between much larger powers. She is eager to prove herself in battle – for one thing, no one can claim the throne without having demonstrated martial prowess; but on a more emotional level, she’s also fervent to earn the approval of her war-hero mother. (Not that she would ever admit it; this is not a young woman who reveals her vulnerabilities, ever.) There’s some interesting confliction here, though; her mother, Eirene, is a military genius, and Sun has the (somewhat valid!) concern that by the time she takes the throne, there won’t be anyone left to fight. But should she really be hoping that her Republic faces more war in the future?
Things are complicated still further by the fact that Sun is half-foreign; superpatriotic Chaonia is borderline xenophobic, and Sun’s father is a prince of the Gatoi, a space-faring people that are mostly allied with the Phene Empire – Chaonia’s ultimate enemy. (More on this in a bit.) There are quite a lot of people who don’t want to see a half-Gatoi princess on the throne.
In other words, Sun has even more to prove than your average Chaonian heir.
Despite having acquitted herself well in battle just previous to the start of Unconquerable Sun, Sun and her Companions – selected peers from the Honourable Houses that make up the Chaonian government, whose first loyalty is to Sun rather than their noble families – are sent away on a propaganda tour at the beginning of the book. Toward the end of which, one of her Companions is murdered, kicking off the fast-paced, high-tension main plot of this trilogy opener.
When I first read Unconquerable Sun, it became an instant fave; rereading it in preparation for Furious Heaven, the sequel, I can see why I loved it so much. Elliott’s usual intricate and detailed worldbuilding is on full display here, and while we get the greatest amount of insight into Chaonia, Elliott also manages to quickly and deftly make the other cultures we encounter, even just in passing, feel real and organic too. Sun herself does come across as a military prodigy (a character-type many authors don’t manage to write convincingly), and I really enjoyed the dynamic between her, her Companions, and the cee-cees (Companions’ companions, ie the Companions’ bodyguards). The way they interact as friends versus how they work together as a team when confronted with threats, and how seamlessly they move between the two states, was just *chef’s kiss* That being said, I thought it was an interesting (and great) choice to not make Sun especially likeable; her whole Thing of being Coolly Reserved means there’s not much for a reader to latch on to, in trying to make an emotional connection to her. But it very much feels like a deliberate choice on Elliott’s part, not poor writing; I think we’re meant to admire Sun, or at least aspects of her, but Sun isn’t interested in being liked (although I do wonder how much of this might be her own inability to connect deeply with other people outside of her Companions) and that very much comes through.
Kind of on the same note; I missed it entirely the first time I read this book, and it’s much more prevalent in the sequel, but Chaonia itself is also not very likable – and I don’t think we’re supposed to think that it is. Sun and her Companions get a bit of a crash-course in Chaonia’s dirty secrets, hypocrisy, and darker underbelly across the course of Unconquerable Sun, but even the public face Chaonia turns to the cameras (and there are a lot of cameras) is pretty awful when you stop and think.
I love it. Not Chaonia, but the fact that Elliott is bucking convention this way, quietly making it clear that the ones we would be rooting for in any other story are…perhaps not the ones we should be rooting for.
I think where some readers may trip up is the fact that there is so much going on. There’s a great deal of politicking – Sun’s father is both working to ensure Sun inherits the throne and conducting secret research to help his people; Eirene takes a new consort, which is a Whole Thing; Sun and co go on the run; this generation’s daughters of Lee House are illegal just by existing, although they don’t know it; there are assassination attempts from several sides; a super-secret romance that absolutely cannot be discovered; and, at first inexplicably, we follow a newly-graduated fighter pilot of the Phene Empire to her first posting. There are a few others I can’t mention at all because spoilers, and I’m sure I’m still forgetting a few.
No wonder I completely missed the existence of dinosaurs in Chaonia the first time around!
Personally, I thought all the different plotlines were balanced and interwoven very well, and I didn’t have much trouble following what was happening and who was involved at any given point. But I cannot in good conscience describe Unconquerable Sun as an easy read; this is not a book you want to pick up when your brain is tired and would like something simple, please. (Even if Persephone, our one and only first-person PoV, thinks she’s funny.)
As for flaws, my only critique is that Elliott sometimes over-explains, tells us too much in a way that feels forced – often through dialogue. This isn’t something I’ve seen in any of her other books, which is part of the reason it stood out so much for me.
That doesn’t detract from it being damn excellent sci fi, particularly if you like the sound of fast-moving political intrigue in a highly militarised far-future culture. It’s not beautiful in the way I generally like my SFF to be, and I will admit I did not enjoy my reread as much as I did reading it for the first time. But the book itself is still objectively brilliant.
You know how sometimes, you just know that the book in your hands is exactly what the author envisioned it to be when they first got the idea for it? That they managed to perfectly manifest the story as it was inside their head? The way it felt to them, before they ever started writing it? Unconquerable Sun is one of those, perfectly and unflinchingly itself, and it’s very hard not to love that.