2023’s Furious Heaven is the second volume in Kate Elliott’s Sun Chronicles space-opera series.
Having prevailed in the most recent clash with the Phene Empire, it would be prudent for the Republic of Chaonia to consolidate its gains. The Phene Empire is vaster, wealthier, and enjoys a communications advantage that Chaonia cannot match. An experienced ruler like Chaonia’s Queen-Marshal Eirene would no doubt steer a careful path in the endless struggle with its imperialistic neighbor.
Eirene’s tempestuous daughter Sun would make other choices, but Eirene has considerable experience keeping Sun on a short leash. As long as Eirene is queen-marshal, Sun’s exuberance will be tempered. As long as Eirene is queen-marshal, the Republic’s enemies will have time to orchestrate Sun’s death and replacement as heir by the easily manipulated Prince Jiàn.
As long as Eirene is queen-marshal…
Vain, proud Aisa Lee broods over a laundry list of affronts, mostly imagined, committed against her by the queen-marshal. Seeing an opportunity to express her displeasure, she fatally stabs Eirene. Fleeing, Aisa is pursued and killed by Sun’s companions.
Whatever Sun’s flaws, she is not hesitant. While others figure out how to respond to Eirene’s death, Sun establishes herself as the new queen-marshal. Inconvenient potential rivals are assassinated, potentially uncooperative functionaries are removed from their positions. Sun is in absolute control of the Republic, or at least as much absolute control as any autocrat can have over a realm where communication can be slow.
How best to put her mark on the Republic? By pursuing a military strategy entirely unlike her late mother’s. Sun’s forces descend on the Karnos system. This is absurd overreach, an unparalleled opportunity for Phene to deliver a crippling blow to Republic forces and to eliminate Sun herself… but the fractious Phene bungle the defense of Karnos. The Republic wins, and at least for the moment, Karnos is Sun’s.
Other autocrats would pause to assimilate newly conquered territory. Other newly crowned monarchs would take time to establish their control over the apparatus of government. Sun prefers a more audacious course. She launches a bold campaign of conquest… one that will take her far from the instantaneous beacon network that links the core systems.
Sun could be travelling for years. How will her rule fare when she cannot communicate with those she ostensibly rules?
People who do not care for politically motivated infanticide will not enjoy this novel.
Due to issues such as limited reading attention, this sort of grand scale space opera is not currently my jam. I note that this volume is 736 pages to the first volume’s 523. Subplots are germinating. This would be alarming given the precedent of certain other epics whose subplots spawned beyond the author’s control. However, Elliott does have a track record of actually delivering completed projects (except when factors external to her intervene).
Furious Heaven is a space opera, so expect furious action, many space battles, and heated political machinations carried out across a vast expanse. While space opera means never worrying about plausible physics, the setting is consistent in its treatment of how the beacon network and the much slower knnu drives shape trade and conflict.
Grumbling first: this is a setting with endless war and bloody factional conflict, where the main question is not will people escape war but which skirmish will annihilate them and their families. There is a reason the mantra “we are all destined for death” recurs throughout the text. The carnage is facilitated by the old beacon network, which allows rapid access between systems. Any planet desiring peace would be well advised to send their beacon into the sun1.
Readers may be puzzled by Sun’s tendency to lead from the front. This is in part because this series is inspired by Alexander the Great, one of those extremely successful monsters with which history burdens humanity from time to time. It’s tempting to seek a one-to-one mapping between Elliott’s star-kingdoms and those in Alexander’s era but while there are some useful analogies (Phene with Achaemenid Persia, Chaonia with Macedon), the parallels between this setting and the Western classical era are more general than specific2.
One detail common to both Sun and Alexander: Sun has setbacks but Sun never loses. At least for the moment, fate smiles on her most outrageous schemes. Some readers may find this sequence of victories a bit boring, but it reflects the career of the conqueror whom Elliott selected as her model. I can’t help but wonder if Sun and her empire will end up like Alexander and his conquests: Alexander died at thirty-two and his vast empire was immediately shattered by the Wars of the Diadochi. Will Sun do better? No doubt we will find out.
Sun’s story is only one part of the narrative. Elliot uses her almost eight hundred pages to follow many different viewpoints, illuminating the conflict from many perspectives. This is not a story about a single golden hero and their companions against faceless opponents. It is the story of an age.
1: For various reasons, people limit contact with beacons, but it is a bit odd that nobody seems to consider moving them into new orbits.
2: That didn’t stop me from wondering if the collapse of the old Celestial Empire of the novel, the empire that created the beacon network, was inspired by the Bronze Age collapse in our history.
It seems that humans tend to remember a previous time as a golden age, one far better than the current time. This nostalgia is often accepted as a plot point in SFF. Each new cycle of civilization is worse than the previous; the old civilization produced artifacts that cannot now be duplicated. History and technology have been lost (archives destroyed, no backups). Just so, the people of Sun’s time cannot make new beacons. Andre Norton’s Forerunners made machines that might as well be magic. Melissa Scott, in the Finders series, imagines her characters searching for powerful relics from the time before the collapse. I could go on.…