This is the second book by Rebecca Roanhorse that I’ve read and although I enjoyed it more than the first (Trail of Lightning), I got the same feeling I did then. That Roanhorse is about 10 years too late for her ideas to feel fresh or new, but that she’s a great writer nontheless. And one that’s getting better over time.
by Rebecca Roanhorse
Published: Saga Press, 2020
eBook: 464 pages
Series: Between Earth and Sky #1
My rating: 7.5/10
Opening line: Today he would become a god.
The first book in the Between Earth and Sky trilogy, inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas and woven into a tale of celestial prophecies, political intrigue, and forbidden magic.
A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun
In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.
Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.
Black Sun is an epic fantasy novel just like they used to be, except it is inspired by South and Middle American cultures and religions. We follow three main POV characters plus one side character who occasionally gets his own chapters. First is Naranpa, the Sun Priest residing in the city of Tova where the four clans of the Sky Made live. Through Naranpa’s eyes, we learn a little bit of how their religion works, the different types of priests there are (one of them is literally assassin priests and I find that so cool), and why Naranpa is an unusual choice for a Sun Priest. Because in addition to the clans living on top the mesas that make up Tova, there are the Earth Born. Essentially, they are the poor people, living further down the cliffs, in the darkness.
Our second viewpoint character is the Teek woman Xiala who clearly likes to get drunk and sleep with beautiful women. This time, her partying got her into prison (not the first time, it turns out) and the only way to get out of trouble is to take on a crazy job sailing a ship across the open sea during a season when no sensible sailor would do that. But the prize is too good to pass up and so Xiala and her crew agree to take a man to Tova. For money and cacao and a ship of her own.
That man happens to be the third POV character and he is called Serapio. We actually first meet him as a young boy when his mother does something pretty terrifying to him because he has a great destiny. What exactly that destiny is becomes clear fairly early in the novel but I don’t want to give it away here. Serapio is blind and quite strange and he makes the crew more than a little uneasy…
As a fan of epic fantasy, I liked this book a lot but I must admit the story is mostly setup. With the exception of Serapio’s tale, the plot may advance but doesn’t really lead anywhere. We’re introduced to a rich world filled with many different kinds of people who speak different langauges (something I always appreciate in SFF books) and who have different cultural sensibilities. We also learn there’s quite a bit of magic in this world although not everyone seems to believe it to the same degree. Xiala’s people, the Teek, are said to be lucky sailors. Xiala can use her Song to quiet the sea or to control the waves a little bit. But she is also met with prejudice and suspicion.
The city of Tova has a lot to offer in terms of politics and religion so I was a little disappointed that we didn’t learn as much about that as expected. Every aspect of life in Tova that we learn about was intriguing and made me want to know more. Whether for pacing reasons or to reduce the word count, Roanhorse only gives us glimpses here and there, just enough to keep me hooked but never enough to fully satisfy my need to understand this world. Whether it’s the priesthood and their jobs, the way the city is setup, the dynamics between the Sky Made clans, or especially how the Earth Born fit into the whole system – I want to know more, more, more! On the one hand, this will ensure that I pick up the next volume, on the other, it’s dissatisfying when you’re only ever fed little tidbits of information.
I had the stranges time reading this book. Maybe some of you have read books that made you feel the same. It would go like this: I would pick up the book, read a few chapters, enjoy them so much that I wouldn’t want to stop. Eventually, of course, I did stop because life and such, and then I would… not want to pick it up again. I continued reading other books in the meantime, all the while not needing to know what happened next in Black Sun. The next time I did pick it up, the same thing would happen. I kept asking myself what my problem was. Why did I not feel the urge to continue when I put the book down? It was really great, after all! Well, I don’t have a clear answer, only a theory. And the theory is that while I enjoyed reading about these characters and this world, the story went along its merry way and didn’t offer much that was new or unexpected. I do so love to be surprised or shocked or delighted with a clever turn in the plot. And because so many people had praised the book so highly, I had expected more than “just” a very good but somewhat generic epic fantasy with a cool setting.
The biggest problem with this story is that it kind of spoils itself. Or, to put it differently, it raises certain expectations for the plot and then simply delivers on them. The first chapters tell you exactly what will happen (in one case it’s a flash forward, so there are no doubts) and then those things… happen. No surprises, no twists, not a story beat that couldn’t have been predicted from early on. Because Roanhorse’s writing is immersive and her characters compelling, that didn’t make the book any less fun. Only less of a standout in the genre. In the acknowledgements, Roanhorse writes that she was sick and tired of the endless quasi-European settings in Epic Fantasy and thus wanted to write something more diverse that shows how ancient peoples weren’t “primitive” at all but rich in culture, science, and religion. I’d say she succeded in that but I disagree with her assessment that Epic Fantasy is still mostly European-inspired. In the last decade, we have been blessed with so many diverse stories and interesting settings! SFF publishing has gone to many different places all over the world (not that there isn’t always room for more exploration) and Black Sun is simply joining what is already a vast selection of newer diverse epic fantasies. So I don’t consider it groudnbreaking – it would have been ten years ago! – but I do think it is a very good book.
My second gripe with the book, even though it’s a lesser one because I’m a seasoned fantasy reader, is that it doesn’t really have an ending. It feels very much like the first part of a bigger story and can not stand on its own. Serapio’s story is the only one that offers a proper arc, with some flashbacks, a capital-D Destiny, and a conclusion of a sort. Naranpa’s and Xiala’s stories simply stop smack dab in the middle with things having been set up but no satisfying ending, not even much advancement of plot, in sight. Again, I don’t mind that so much because (a) I am used to reading longer series and waiting (sometimes for years) for the next volume and (b) I am going to pick up the next part when it comes out either way. Despite my weird not-wanting-to-pick-the-book-back-up thing, I finished it with mostly positive feelings. There could have been a bit more world building, a bit more story for Xiala and Naranpa, more time spent on flashbacks or characters’ back stories, but I feel confident that I will get all of that in the next book.
If you feel like the comfort of good old epic fantasy but you want a more diverse cast and a non-European setting, pick this up.
MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!