Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun (2020) introduces a new series set in an ancient Mesoamerica that is a mix of partly-familiar cultures and original fantasy elements, creating a heady brew that rolls along smoothly even as it moves back and forth in time and amongst a quartet of POVs.
Those POVs belong to:
- Naranapa: the young Sun Priest based in the holy city of Tova, head of the religious order that has kept peace for three centuries.
- Serapio: a young boy groomed since his childhood as the “vessel” of the Crow god, bent on vengeance for his people’s massacre in Tova years ago at the Night of Knives.
- Xiala: a ship’s captain and member of the Teek, a (seemingly) all-female people who wield sea magic known as The Song.
- Okoa: a young member of the Crow Clan who has been training at the War College and who is the rider of Benundah, one of the giant crows the clan bonds with.
Naranapa’s story is more removed from the others’ and deals with the political machinations within the order. Not only is she female and young (two marks against her, for some), she also rose out of The Maw, the most impoverished area of Tova, which, for some, makes her unworthy to be the Sun Priest. Besides the political maneuverings, she also has to deal with assassination attempts, family issues, and the rise of a Crow God cult that seeks to convince its clan to take vengeance on the priests for their slaughter of the Crow Clan years ago when it had been in power.
Meanwhile, Serapio and Xiala’s stories are tightly intertwined, as Xiala is hired by a Merchant Lord to get Serapio to Tova by the Convergence, a holy date set on the date of an eclipse. The sea voyage would be difficult enough given the time of the year and the nearly-impossible deadline, but it’s made more fraught by how the crew mistrusts both Xiala and Serapio due to their strange looks and magic abilities (sure, Xiala’s abilities mean their voyage is actually safer for the crew, but superstition is not known to go hand in hand with rational thinking).
We also see Serapio’s backstory, starting from when his mother first set him on the path toward becoming the god’s vessel (I’ll just say it comes with more than a little sacrifice from both of them) and then through his subsequent training by a sequence of three tutors as he ages. Eventually, Serapio’s backstory catches up to present time, and then he and Xiala make it to Tova where Naranapa already is. The novel ends with some plotlines resolved and others still hanging.
Finally, Okoa’s story comes in quite late when he is summoned from the War College back to Tova, where his story will intersect with Naranapa tangentially and Serapio much more directly. I imagine we’ll see much more of Okoa’s POV in book two of the BETWEEN EARTH AND SKY series.
I quite thoroughly enjoyed Black Sun, even if some of the plot elements are relatively familiar or even, at times, a bit predictable. That isn’t to say plot is a weakness; it certainly kept my attention throughout and had its tense moments. More that other elements outshone the plot.
The characters, for one. Each of them is compelling for both different and shared reasons. All of them, save for Okoa, are outsiders of some sort.
Serapio is blind, scarred, and hasn’t had normal human interaction for years, isolated save for his tutors since he became a vessel. Xiala is also an outsider, a Teek amongst landspeople who mistrust and fear her and one who, for mysterious reasons, seems not to have been home for quite a while. While Xiala has to deal with bigotry/racism, Naranapa struggles with class issues, as she senses that her background, which she has gone to great lengths to conceal and bury, leads any who learn of it to think of her as worthless gutter trash, someone who has risen beyond the natural order.
Each also has their own internal struggles, a unique voice, and each comes to some sort of unexpected knowledge of themselves that is still unresolved by the end. I enjoyed the slow pace by which Roanhorse reveals both their backgrounds and their personalities, and I look forward to seeing their continued growth both as individual characters and in their relationships to one another.
I also liked the complexity and tension of some of their motivations. Naranapa, for instance, wants to reform her order, but so far as I can tell while she wants it to be more “involved” with the general populace she still sees its hierarchy as fine. And Serapio, meanwhile, is nothing but a weapon of vengeance aimed like a tool. A tool his own people are torn about, some eager to reap their vengeance and others worried what any such attempt might bring. The Night of Knives was a horror, yes, but where is the line drawn between justice for past wrong and mere vengeance? Is there such a line? What does a people do to move on from such a horror? Is there such a thing as moving on? Roanhorse certainly doesn’t spell out any answers, nor do her characters come to any neat conclusions.
The Mesoamerican background is another clear plus here. While we’ve certainly moved away from the near-exclusively Western European background of much of fantasy in recent years, it’s still a pleasant bit of freshness to find someone doing something a bit different. I particularly liked that Roanhorse doesn’t simply lift a single culture’s mythos but (I think) takes a bit from here and a bit from there. There’s a clear feel of Mayan/Aztec here. But it also reminded me of the Southwest US, particularly Chaco, as well as the Pueblo culture in that area. But at the same time, Xiala’s ocean navigation skills felt more Polynesian than Mesoamerican and many cultures, of course, have tales of alluring women of the sea. I actually would have liked more foregrounding of this fascinatingly motley world and hope that comes to pass in the sequel.
I read Black Sun in a single setting straight through, happily pulled along by a solid plot but even more by a trio (eventually a quartet) of complicated, layered characters moving through a highly original world. A strong start to a new series I’m excited to continue with.
I enjoyed Black Sun quite a lot, which didn’t surprise me — I’d already read Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts, the first and second volumes in Rebecca Roanhorse’s THE SIXTH WORLD series, and highly recommend both — though I’ll admit that I was surprised by the ending of the novel, in ways that made me think long and hard about what sort of story Roanhorse might be telling in the BETWEEN EARTH AND SKY series. Thankfully, it’s all to the reader’s benefit.
The characters, as Bill mentions, are all well-written and compelling, with an interesting blend of familiar and unexpected elements. Roanhorse’s world-building is painstakingly intricate, but the world itself feels lived-in, and just familiar enough (chocolate! Quetzal feathers!) to complement the fantastical side of things (megafauna! Mermaids!). It’s easy to get lost in Xiala and Serapio’s journey and mourn how little time they get to spend together, though it was harder to connect as tightly with Naranpa’s story of a low-caste beggar elevated to the highest echelons of power struggling to keep her life and station intact; it’s simply the sheer familiarity of that type of story that caused issues for me, and I hope the events of Black Sun will provide opportunities for her story to diverge from more-familiar paths. Okoa, the late addition to the narrative, seems to be a deeply conflicted person, and I’m looking forward to more from him in the next installment.
Initially, the shifting timelines were hard for me to get a handle on, but as I got further into the story, everything started to make more and more sense. Roanhorse is setting up something big here, truly epic-level fantasy, and I’m definitely looking forward to book two, Fevered Star, currently slated for release in early 2022.