Unconquerable Sun hooked me on the premise of a genderbent Alexander the Great. And with further research, Kate Elliot confirmed that it was sapphic. And while the sapphic elements were there, they took the backseat to a character who one, isn’t the Alexander the Great equivalency, Sun, and two, is a complete mess of a bi/pansexual stereotype. While the plot kept me reading, the characters, the worldbuilding, and the clunky writing really made me wish that I hadn’t. But sometimes you persevere so others don’t have to.
The world was a mash of cultures, but I kept seeing Asian elements in the worldbuilding. It has the Asian-vague that I see from a lot of white authors, where elements from Korean, Chinese, and Japanese cultures are plucked without context and mashed together – like when they go to a ramen shop and smell the scent of fried rice. There were also just randomly space dinosaurs. I don’t know why that bothered me so much, but it did.
The book was fast-paced with plenty of action and the political intrigue was engaging, but it felt like Kate Elliot was trying to put out a character driven novel, which didn’t work for me because all of the characters fell flat. I felt very removed from Sun and her companions because of the writing style.
Princess Sun is not the protagonist we are promised from the description. Her parts of the story are told in third person past tense – and that isn’t what I have the problem with. I like third person POVs, in fact, I prefer them over first person. The problem comes in when at 15% of the way into the book, a new, first person POV character is introduced. It was at this point that we met Persephone Lee – a series of walking stereotypes and an extremely annoying character.
Persephone is unnecessarily catty. Before she has even met or talked to Princess Sun once, she is already calling her a bitch. This felt so unnecessary and really set me off. It’s not the swearing that I have a problem with. It is the need for there to be superficial conflict between female characters when there is nothing to base that conflict off of – it screams of internalized misogyny. I hate the concept that women have to hate each other for no reason. Persephone also had a lot of other prejudices – which are only partially addressed in the book.
Persephone doesn’t feel like a real person, ever. Everything she thinks is incredibly melodramatic, she falls in insta-love with every hot person that she sees, she was somehow so incredibly unaware of anything having to do with strategy or military or fighting even though she had just spent the last several years at a military academy??? I was frustrated every moment I had to read her POV because her character wasn’t as interesting or as competent as Princess Sun, and she honestly felt unnecessary to the plot. Also, can someone please explain why you would call a book a genderswapped Alexander the Great in space when the stand-in for Alexander the Great (Princess Sun) isn’t even the POV character????
And finally, on to what bothered me the most. This sapphic elements of this book took a back seat to a heterosexual romance based around a character who was a walking bisexual stereotype. Princess Sun and Hetty are in a secret relationship, which somehow doesn’t lend itself to any interesting drama or conflict, that is mentioned here and there, but isn’t anything significant. Instead, we are faced with Persephone’s instant lust for a man who tries to kill her. This isn’t unprecedented – Persephone immediately lusts after any hot person in her vicinity. She herself even says “I’m all about physical infatuation.” It’s a frustrating and tired stereotype that every bisexual could live without.
I was disappointed that any sapphic elements were overwhelmed by the budding relationship between Persephone and Zizou (and Zizou’s budding erection – I’m still grossed out that I had to read about “the changing contours of his body” when they were making out).
If you, like me, were planning to pick up Unconquerable Sun because you are looking for a sapphic space opera, save yourself the trouble – instead, look out for queer authors like Arkaday Martine and Melissa Scott. This book might be better suited to a different audience.