ARC Review: Unconquerable Sun (The Sun Chronicles #1) by Kate Elliott

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I’m not in love with this cover, but it accurately presents the book as sci fi, and is visually appealing. Still, if I had to guess the plot from this cover, I’d assume it was about an emotionless cyborg assassin, and not the detailed and engrossing space opera it truly is

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.


I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

I really enjoyed this book, but it took me a while to read because so much happens! I generally prefer series to standalones, but in the case of this book in particular I am glad there will be follow-up books, because the world, characters, and various relationships between said characters introduced in this book are nuanced and amazing, and deserve more time to shine. Note that I didn’t say ‘to be developed’, and that’s because Unconquerable Sun didn’t present half characters or barely filled in shells, instead taking the far harder and more narratively satisfying step of dumping the reader into a full-fledged world, that I have faith will be further built on in future novels.

I enjoyed the futuristic touches that gave the book a classic sci-fi feel, and also the technology driven elements of the world that could easily have swung the book towards fantasy—the behaviour of banner soldiers, the way Sun stays in touch with her companions, and the beacons in particular come to mind as examples of this. Fantasy was my first love, but sci fi is a nice change of pace sometimes, and a great way to get a heavier dose of philosophy or examination of real world issues in my fiction.

Speaking of, Unconquerable Sun doesn’t shy away from examining the implications of things like a monarchy, or the inevitable cracks in a system that disenfranchised people will fall through. Tiana as a character has exactly zero chill in calling Princess Sun in particular out on her responsibility for, and I whole-heartedly love it. I’m all for an escapist powerful/royal character who is inexplicably on the side of the underdog—it’s not realistic, but it’s nice. Thanks not quite entirely to Tiana (Persephone, Solomon and Apama also have various moments of calling the reader’s attention to a sharp power imbalance), Unconquerable Sun creates a more realistic world, with grey areas and economic and social inequality, and the way those in power have a responsibility to their constituents to leaven the negative effects the systems they are responsible for would otherwise have on the most vulnerable in the community.

The seeming lack of discrimination on the basis of sex, gender and sexuality in this book was also refreshing. I love the trend (I don’t know if it’s recent, but it is to me) of alternate worlds being created without certain modern day prejudices, not to deny their existence (the xenophobia in this book added a touch of realism and important commentary on such a harmful issue, without in any way condoning or glorifying such beliefs) but to provide a template of what such a society could look like. I loved it in The Priory of the Orange Tree and Phoenix Extravagant, and I loved it here.

I also had a bit of a feminist chuckle at the Phene custom of all officers being addressed as ma’am as a manner of tradition, and I have to admit that a ruler being influenced by their newest conquest would have been flat out distasteful if it had been yet another lecherous king character, I quite enjoyed the representation of women as frankly sexual beings represented in various characters within this series. Seeing Sun striving for the approval of her emotionally distant mother was a great flip-of-the-script of traditional heroic male characters, and I loved her father being the one to maintain and strengthen his power through subterfuge and sexual wiles.

There were so many characters in this book that I doubt I’ll have time to praise all of them that I liked and appreciated, but know that not a single character represented in this book fell flat for me. Persephone was probably the character I enjoyed most, and I was really happy to read a character that isn’t miraculously brilliant at every skill that becomes plot-relevant. I was a little surprised that a certain character’s death didn’t effect wither her or Sun more deeply, but given the length and complexity of the novel already, perhaps the section of the book dealing with said death were all that could reasonably be allowed.

Alexis’s musical skills and fame seemed a little exaggerated in this book, and in fact the entire Idol Faire sub-plot is one I think the book could have done without. That being said, the inclusion did allow for some commentary on the power, protection and costs of having the world’s eyes on you, which I imagine could come into play even more in future novels.

Sun herself was not my favourite character of the book (I think that’s got to be either Persephone or Tiana), but she was a solid hero character, with her relationship with her companions and parents unique enough to make her an interesting character, and a solid choice for the lead.

Apama was a great way to keep the Phene from becoming a faceless dehumanised enemy; Solomon and his extended family are pure gold and need more page time; Jade Kim and Admiral Manu allow for great comedic relief and also need to come back in future books; it was great to see someone not overcome by heroics and maintaining their martial skills in Candace; and anyone who doesn’t like Tiana can fight me right here.

In all seriousness, this book was a big, action-packed rollercoaster of a novel, with a great cast, interesting world, and commentary on all sorts of issues (Refugees! Sex work! Religion! War!) and if you’re looking for a nuanced space opera with a ragtag crew of people going on adventures, Unconquerable Sun is for you. I swear this isn’t the only sci-fi book I compare things to, but this series would be good for fans of Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series. Fans of the political machinations of NK Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms novels or the social justice focus of AJ Hartley’s Steeplejack will also find plenty to enjoy, and the gender politics also reminded me at times of Anne Bishop’s original Dark Jewels trilogy.

Those looking forward to purchasing or reading the book for themselves can do so on the 7th of July, and as always I’ll post a reminder here then, as well.

 

 

 

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