Monday, April 17, 2023

Review: Furious Heaven by Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott’s Furious Heaven continues her genderflipped Alexander the Great in space as we truly get into the more well known parts of his history.

Unconquerable Sun introduced us to Kate Elliott’s Princess Sun of Chaonia, the daughter of Queen-Marshal Eirene, a young and ambitious woman in a world of interstellar Empires struggle and Chaonia not so long freed from the yoke of the mighty Phene empire, dreams of retribution upon it.  In an epic story, we were introduced to Sun and her companions as a surprise attack by the Phene ultimately brought Sun glory as she turned back the strike. 

Now, in Furious Heaven, the story of Sun and her companions continues.

One of the games to play as a reader of these novels, if you are aware of the original history they are based upon, is to play “Spot the moment or part  in Alexander’s history this is based upon”. What surprised me slightly in the first novel was that while this is the story of Sun, based on Alexander, the action takes place in the reign of Philip, or Eirene (Philip being genderflipped too).  When we get to this second novel, Furious Heaven, the question in my mind became this as I started reading--when was Eirene going to die? The death of Philip II of Macedon is one of the great world-changing events in world history, for it set Alexander on his path to eventual global conquest. One can argue what-ifs of world history all day long, but if Philip isn't assassinated when he is, Alexander doesn’t get his campaigns and his shattering of Persia.

Another aspect, and it is far more spoilery to discuss, is how and why Eirene dies. The death of Philip II and the discourse and discussion on that assassination and its motives and true origin is something that has consumed scholars of ancient history since the moment Philip was put in the ground, and there is still no definitive answer to this day. We have a killer, who did not live long, but their motives, backer, plans are a nebulous mystery. You might say that Philip’s death is the JFK assassination of its epoch. (and yes, one of the theories is that Russia, err, the Persians, funded the whole thing).   Elliott makes use of this ambiguity and provides an in-universe answer which I will not discuss for plot reasons, but she uses the main line that history does--that Alexander takes the death of his father and uses it as a rallying call, that happens here, too. Given that the death of Eirene happens at about the quarter turn of the book, the rest of the book starts laying out Sun’s campaigns against the Phene. 

But not just Sun’s story. In the first novel, one of our major point of views is the “Wily Persephone”, Persephone Lee, somewhat renegade daughter of a major House of Chaonia, wh becomes one of Sun’s companions in the wake of her twin brother (and also former Companion)’s tragic death. The story of Unconquerable Sun is not only that of Sun but also of Persephone and how Persephone winds up slotting herself into the role of Companion, how her glory, reflected moon to Sun, gets to shine itself. 

Furious Heaven keeps Sun and Persephone as viewpoint characters, and adds a new one, and this one a Phene. Given that the bulk of the novel is Sun’s struggle against the Phene, it makes sense from a narrative standpoint to have a point of view that counterpoints both Sun and Persephone, who is on team Sun at this point. Although, there is some question whether Persephone is or should be more loyal to Lee House, or to Sun herself. Persephone’s nature, too, which was touched upon in the first novel, really gets a work out  Persephone finds herself in some very crossed loyalties as the novel progresses and a lot of drama and high stakes character development.

And that really is the strength of this thick (750 pages novels).  Sure, there is plenty of space opera action for those who want that sort of thing. Space fleets clashing. Action and mayhem and the tricks and strategy of Sun, who really is Alexander the Great in space--brash, impulsive, driven, and brilliant. Intense and crunchy worldbuilding, borrowing from ancient history here, inventing wildly and deeply there. Crackerjack and well thought out plotting, drawing the various threads and elements from both sides and making the large gargantuan book work as a read that keeps you turning the pages.  Kate Elliott’s book has all of this in spades and all are good reasons to read this book (after reading Unconquerable Sun, I wouldn’t start here)

What this book does and why I read a Kate Elliott book for, at the bottom, what she does best is to create amazing characters and explore their limits, challenges, drama and development. Taking Persephone Lee, the Wily Persephone, and putting her through a lot of challenges, and drama. Sun is a force of nature, difficult to look at without squinting. There is less from Sun’s point of view than what you might think in the novel and I think that is a good and deliberate choice, since she is so iconic. She is not inhuman, her relationship with Hetty is touching and moves the heart and soul. 

On the other hand Persephone is far more human, far more vulnerable far more of a character to ring changes and challenges upon, and Elliott does this ably.

Just as Persephone was the “new kid on the block” in the first novel, we do get a new Companion as a POV character in the book on the site od the Chaoians, and that is the Valiant Makinde. Like Persephone, it is happenstance, and sudden decision on Sun’s part, and his backstory that catapults him into the ranks of Companions. Even more than the first novel, especially after Eirene’s death, there is some very good work here in showing how and why and who Sun picks as Companions as to how her mother did it. James, Alika and the others form a formidable team and group. There are many Companions and they do not all get equal screen time. (Alika, for example, is more downplayed here than in the previous novel).  

But then there is the Phene. Apama At Sabao is a pilot, a lieutenant in the forces of the Phene, but far from the halls of power. Her story which only at the end really intersects with Sun’s, in addition to giving us a human view on the Phene, gives us connections to other characters, like Admiral Manu, who seems to be based on Mnemon of Rhodes, a Greek who was in the service of Persia. Apama has to make difficult decisions, especially on a personal level. Catapulted into politics and conflict, when she would rather be a Lancer pilot, Apama shows us the costs of war on a number of levels and the sacrifices one must make. It also shows the nuance of the novel in showing there is heroism and strength on both sides of a war, and nuance.  We also get some brief interludes from other points of view, seeing these characters (especially Sun) from different points of view as the conflict erupts, flares and the aftermath of same happens. 

I did elide over the worldbuilding previously but I will spend a few moments here to talk about it if you will indulge me, since my love of worldbuilding is well know to readers of my reviews. As mentioned before, this is a genderflipped Alexander the Great in space. All of these polities are refugees of an Earth lost, they have pieces of our heritage but only fragments. It was a long and arduous trip (and we learn more about it from Sun’s explorations as well as the knowledge of Apama) and a lot of the old world was lost. The fact that the events now echo the past is not lost on, and is even commented on makes me think of a bit of properties such as Battlestar Galactica. Resonances between our past and our future. Is it by design? The workings of Lady Chaos? There are no definitive answers but Elliott sure likes bringing it up, sometimes in philosophical debate and sometimes by bold action.  Sure, the Phene are sort of the Persians, except when they are not. The Mishirru are the Egyptians, except when they are not  There is interesting technology for how interstellar travel works (and how it fails miserably). Channel Idol continues to be an interesting innovation, showing how a cognate of Alexander the Great could use media to her advantage. 

Sun is a brilliant, fearless and solar character and if you want to follow her through the first book, you will want to in this second. Like the book says in its opening epigraph:

“There is but one true sun

And each of us

Casts nothing more than her

Reflected glory

She, and too, the author herself, is indeed the spear cast at the furious heaven and I look forward to see where that spear lands in the third and final book.

Reference: Elliott, Kate, Furious Heaven, Tor Books, 2023

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.