A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Sun Chronicles
by Kate Elliott

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted March 19, 2023
Edits and Addendum on April 1, 2023

1. Unconquerable Sun / 2. Furious Heaven / 3. Lady Chaos

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Please note: several of the names should have diacritical marks over certain letters, but my html editor is not recognizing some of them. It won't let me copy and paste from the character map, or even from some other webpage. There are a few that do work, but I'm choosing not to use them in order to be consistent.

To the best of my recollection, Unconquerable Sun is the first I've read by Kate Elliott, who began her career writing under her real name, Alis A. Rasmussen, although her first four novels have been reissued as by Elliott. The promotional blurb for the Sun Chronicles says it's a "gender-swapped Alexander the Great on an interstellar scale." The gender-swapped label fits, since many in government and military positions are women. It's common in our current military that a woman officer is often addressed as sir. In this story it's ma'am even if the person addressed is a man. As to Alexander the Great, I'm not a scholar by any means, so I'm not sure that is completely accurate. If it is, it raises the question of which character represents Alexander. Is it Princess Sun Shan, or her mother, the queen-marshal Eirene? The title of the first book, and the collective name for the proposed trilogy, would seem to indicate it is Sun, but Eirene has consolidated her power over the Chaonian Republic for the previous twenty years or so, as well as annexing several other star systems under her command. Sun's father, the Gatoian Prince Joao, is only one of Eirene's consorts, and if I'm not mistaken, only her most recent marriage is to a fellow-Chaonian. The majority of Gatoi side with the rival Phene Empire, which makes Joao a compromising influence in the eyes of many. Alexander was from Macedonia, his eventual empire spreading into the western parts of Asia. Most of the cultures depicted here seem further east than that, most particularly China. The Celestial Empire is frequently mentioned as being the departure point for the emigration to space, although it is possible that is used as a general designation of Earth, or China had become the dominate country by then, as they very nearly are now.

Eirene's reign began after her brother (also called the queen-marshal) was killed in action against the Phene, who had had control of Chaonian space for many years. Her various marriages were calculated to form alliances with other systems that had also been under the yoke of the Phene. But now, more than twenty years later, Princess Sun returns to Chaonia a hero of the latest battle against the Phene. In her retinue are her Companions, and the companions of her Companions, referred to as cee-cees. There are seven Core Houses on Chaonia, with one Companion from each House. Other than the royals of Shan House, the other most prominent is Lee House, in charge of the Ministry of Security, Punishment, and Corrections. Sun has a volatile personality, and on many occasions several others caution her to hold her temper in check, especially when confronting her mother. Sun is irritated that Eirene seems to take her for granted, with never any congratulations, no matter how significant her accomplishments. Something that might be similar to the court of Alexander is everyone has an agenda, constantly maneuvering for their cause, even going so far as to sabotage or betray other factions. Prince Joao has a theory the Phene are genetically manipulating Gatoi, using them for front-line shock troops. He proposes a project to capture several Gatoi in order to figure out the Phene's methods, and if possible counteract them and recruit Gatoi to the Chaonia side. As long and complicated as the book is, there are several things streamlined, the first being how soon after Eirene has authorized Joao's project that someone else has found his supposedly secret lab and taken several Gatoi for their own purposes, which would seem to indicate a breach of security. Even Sun was not informed of her father's project or where he was at that time. There is enough action that it seems a longer period of time for all of the events, but later it is stated that the plot encompasses a week at the most.

If Sun is the central character, it's puzzling why her chapters, and those focusing on a few others, are written in third-person, but another character writes her perspective in first-person. Persephone Lee did not want to be a part of Lee House, since she felt they were as criminal as any person or group they were supposedly protecting Chaonia from. For five years she had been training at CeDCA, the Central Defense Cadet Academy, under an assumed name, although she wasn't as clever as she thought. Her new name? Persephone Li. On the verge of graduating and getting a ship assignment, Persephone's "disguise" is revealed, and she is recalled to Lee House. Apparently they had known where she was all that time. What she had not yet learned is that she is to be Princess Sun's latest Companion, replacement for her twin brother Perseus, who was killed in a boating accident. Or was it an accident? In turn, Persphone gets her own cee-cee, since Perseus' cee-cee was also killed. It is only the second time she had been to the royal residence. The first was when she was eleven, when Perseus was named Companion. The other was for a memorial service for her sister, the Eight Times Worthy Ereshkigal Lee, killed in battle. Just after her arrival, Eirene's wedding to Persephone's cousin Maena begins, which is a surprise to her, and to Sun. I won't tell you what happens at the reception, but it causes Sun, Persephone, the Companions and cee-cees, to run for their lives. Who was responsible, an infiltrating Phene agent, or someone closer to home? Sun is afraid she can't even trust her parents, and Persephone feels the same about hers. There are losses along the way, and new allies, or at least potential allies, or maybe other factions they should be wary of. They make it back to CeDCA, with Persephone hoping to recruit some of her classmates to help, only to find four Phene gunships attacking the Academy, as well as a nearby industrial park, which just so happens to have been the location of Joao's "secret" lab.

Lot's of action, very fast paced, with enough clues about the various Houses dropped in to give some inkling of what is going on, or in some cases it's misdirection. As far as this book is concerned, all the cultures derive from the same human stock from the Celestial Empire, even if some seem alien. Genetic design and manipulation has given the Phene four arms. Much interbreeding between different systems had produced variations, as well as different allegiances. Most readers would assume Chaonia is being presented as the "good" guys, but there is a lot of intrigue, corruption, and back-stabbing within most of the Houses. We may learn more of that in the next book, as well as other systems briefly mentioned, and it seems likely we'll learn more about the "beacon" system, which is similar to wormholes, but apparently engineered by humans, or co-opted by humans from alien tech. Going by the Goodreads system I'll give this four stars, but that is rounded up slightly. There is repetition of action and commentary, and something else that seemed weird. One of Sun's Companions is Alika, a famous composer/singer, very popular on Channel Idol, and frequent winner of Idol Faire. He is very well known, as is his instrument, a ukelele, which he kept strapped to his back through most of the action. There were times they were trying to remain under the radar, when he would play one of his songs, and of course he is recognized by the crowds they were trying to hide within. Another weird thing, and I know it's not the first time it has cropped up in other futuristic tales, but after millennia in these systems, separated by time and light years from Earth, but Alika knows a lot of pop songs and other things from the home planet. Going from the most recent (from our perspective) and moving toward the past, that includes Pearl Jam, The Police, The Beatles, and Hank Williams, along with a blues ballad of undetermined origin, as well as a poem from Rumi. But the one that sticks out the most as preposterous refers to something even modern fans of baseball might not get.

Several other reviewers have given this high praise. It's been on my Kindle for nearly two years, purchased on sale, then Edelweiss offered an advance review copy of the second book, Furious Heaven, due April 18. The Temple of Furious Heaven was mentioned a couple of times, a physical location, supposedly where Sun's parents met, although it wasn't specified if it was on Chaonia, or another planet or moon, perhaps an orbital habitat. For the title it could also be used in a metaphorical sense. It has been three years since the first book was published, so there's no telling when the third might appear, and there has been no mention of a title that I'm aware of. [Correction: In the forward matter of my review copy of Furious Heaven it lists Lady Chaos as the third title, with an asterisk indicating *forthcoming. No date, and perhaps the title might change. That title seems to indicate one character, whom I did not name above, will survive to that point.] It took me a week to read Unconquerable Sun, and the second book is more that 200 pages longer, so who knows when I'll update this, but it will be my next review.


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Posted April 1, 2023:
I received a free digital copy of Furious Heaven from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. It will publish April 18. The Temple of Furious Heaven is not on Chaonia, but rather Yele, another system formerly controlled by the Phene but now part of the Chaonian Republic. The temple derived its name from a poem supposedly written by the Celestial Emperor at the time of the emigration from Earth, or possibly by someone else among the first wave. From the Hymn of Leaving: "Crossing the ocean of stars we leave our home behind us. We are the spears cast at the furious heaven." The main action in the books is taking place approximately 4000 years later, with the first Landfall of the generation ships about 1000 years after leaving Earth. Within close proximity to Landfall were several other habitable planets, the one becoming the seat of government being Mishirru. The generation ships were known as Argosies, with guilds of Pilots and Navigators having been established. They used "knnu" drives, which I would liken to Star Trek's impluse engines. No warp drive or any other form of faster than light. However, engineers in the Apsaras Convergence developed the beacon system, and beacon drives on ships to access them. By the end of this book there is still not a lot known about the beacons, mainly because about 800 years prior there was a collapse of the Convergence, which resulted in a percentage of the beacons failing.

It's still vague about the origin of the beacons. Were they a completely new technology or something discovered? The intent for their use was to break the monopoly of transit and trade held by the Argosies. The more beacons in a system the better their chances for trade with others, and for controlling systems that had been annexed. Some systems lost their only beacon, meaning they lost contact with others, outside of using the much slower knnu drives, but those drives were proprietary to the Argosies. Thus the Argosies were the only access to Mishirru, so most of the other systems that utilized beacon travel had not had contact with Mishirru for millennia. It was believed the Argosies would not share knnu drive technology with others, so how and from whom did the Phene acquire knnu drives, which they used for a long prepared attack in the Molossia system? That occurred shortly after the events that ended the first book, the Phene attack on Chaonia. Sun anticipated what their goal was, mounting an action into Molossia just in time. Sun is a master strategist, possibly even more ingenious than Eirene, who had a long term goal herself, to wrest Karnos system away from the Phene. Karnos has multiple beacons, but an infrequent alignment of the planets those beacons serve would allow for a strategic attack, with Phene access far away from the Chaonian infiltration. The attack, designed by Eirene but commanded by Sun, is successful.

Remember, this has been described as "Alexander the Great in space." The death of Eirene is very similar to that of Alexander's father, Philip II. Was the assassin merely a disturbed individual out for revenge, or were they acting as a Phene agent? Multiple times in the past the queen-marshal post had been appropriated by other of the Core Houses, and Lee House was the most likely to try it again. They were head of Security, Punishment, and Corrections, so well equipped to implement a coup. There are several other betrayals along the way, or sometimes just the suspicion of betrayal, but hard to say if they were all connected, or possibly different factions vying for control, or just disaffected individuals. Eirene had multiple consorts, only one of which was Chaonian. Sun's father Joao was suspected by many as being a foreign agent, but he seems to be one of the loyal ones, unlike Eirene's consort from the Yele League. Sun is now queen-marshal, and like her mother before her she actively participated in the military campaigns. She wanted her troops to know she was standing beside them every step of the way, which resulted in injuries in each campaign. She was not content to rest on her laurels, and continued to implement actions her advisors thought were impossible. Direct invasion of the Phene Empire was one of those. The Phene had the advantage in number of ships and troops, and in the wealth to support them. What Chaonia had was a cohesive force that would do anything asked of them. A common expression was, "There is no IF in the Chaonia fleet, only WHEN." So, Chaonia now has control of Anchor, the Phene homeworld, and a treaty has been signed, but it is also known that many ships escaped. What will Sun's move be in the next book?

Furious Heaven is not only much longer than the first book, it is better in both character development and exposition of the plot and action. Whether it's a Chaonian frigate under attack, or troops infiltrating the underground bunkers on Anchor, the action is revealed in sequences that flow with the speed of battle, but there are also slower, quieter moments that reveal motivations, and sometimes fear and anxiety. Another strong element is the depiction of the rival Phene troops, equally loyal to their cause as the Chaonians are to theirs. With a lot of the action in different locations and focused on different individuals, it is sometimes frustrating that a favorite character (one of mine being a Phene pilot) is missing for multiple chapters. Sun is an arrogant person, but maybe for good reason. She knows what is needed, and she is unafraid of leading no matter the danger. She is quick to acknowledge the efforts of others, which instills loyalty and trust. It is possible that might extend to some of the conquered Phene in the future. On many occasions she is told it is time for her to take a consort, and to produce an heir, and perhaps she is now ready. Will her first consort be a Phene? And if so, will her child have two arms or four? Could she possibly give birth to a Rider? That's the first time I've mentioned that, and I'm revealing no other details. Even if that doesn't happen, Sun will likely utilize another Rider or two for her future plans. I rated the first book four stars, rounded up slightly, but I'll go ahead and give this one five stars. I am now anxious to read Lady Chaos, so I hope the wait is not too long.


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Kate Elliott

Unconquerable Sun: 7/7/20
Furious Heaven: 4/18/23

Unconquerable Sun was a Locus Finalist

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Unconquerable Sun
Furious Heaven

Unconquerable Sun Furious Heaven

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