Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun is her first foray into novel-length space opera in well over two decades. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since I heard Elliott mention it as a work in progress, some four years ago: “gender-swapped young Alexander the Great in spaaaaaaaaaaace” is exactly the kind of thing that’s narrative catnip for me. Now that I’ve read it, I’m here to tell you in multiple fonts and also ALL CAPS that it’s GOOD and I LOVE IT and YOU SHOULD READ IT NOW… but that’s not exactly a solid basis for a useful review. Unconquerable Sun is substantial, set in a complex world, full of events and interesting characters, and I confess to a paralysing anxiety about doing it proper justice.
It’s been, after all, an anxious kind of year.
Let me begin with a small excursus upon Alexander, whose youth—and whose months-long falling out with his father, Philip of Macedon, over what would be Philip’s final marriage, in the year before Alexander’s accession to the kingship—is the acknowledged inspiration from which Elliott brings us Unconquerable Sun.
The life of Alexander the Great is fertile ground for science fiction and fantasy stories. A young man—and Alexander is one of those historical figures who never outlives his youth: for him there is no settled maturity, no peak of satisfaction, no calm middle-age or decline into twilight years—inheriting a strong kingdom from a vigorous king at the height of his power. Already a respected military leader, he came into his kingdom (possibly through acquiescence in the assassination of Philip) before his strife with his father could blight his prospects or bloom into civil war: acclaimed king at the age of twenty by the nobility and military assembled to celebrate his sister’s wedding, he rapidly consolidated his power and proceeded to spend the next thirteen years of his life in constant warfare. His goal was, it seems, to conquer the known world: an ambition befitting a man who may have thought himself the son of a god—and not an ambition that could ever have realistically been satisfied.