Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1)
by Rebecca Roanhorse
Expected publication: October 13, 2020 by Saga Press
In the holy city of Tova, priests of the many gods gather to greet the oncoming winter solstice which converges with a rare solar eclipse, a dark omen that foretells the unbalancing of the world. As the holy orders prepare for this strange event, traditionalists collide with more progressive members of the priesthood– with deadly consequences. Meanwhile, across the sea, Xiala, a disgraced Teek captain with strange gifts over the sea and men’s minds, embarks on a journey across storm-tossed waters to deliver a single passenger to Tova on the day of the convergence. But while her employer assures her that the young blind man is an innocent, Xiala knows that even innocent-seeming men can harbor secret dangers, and the ones everyone says are harmless could be the greatest villains of all.
“When she had first turned to face Serapio, she would have sworn a great black bird hovered above him, its head blocking the moon and its wings flaring out as wide as the ship behind it. It had chilled her to the bone, sent a primal fear screaming through her brain that had made her forget to call her Song. If that bird had wanted to reach down and rip her limb from limb with its massive black beak, she would have stood there with her mouth hanging open and let it.”
For all the richness Meso-American cultures have to offer, they are rarely shown in popular culture. We occasionally hear about Montezuma, jaguar warriors, or the legends of Incan gold, but the vast and complex cultures are otherwise overlooked by most. In her new trilogy, Between Earth and Sky, veteran SFF author Rebecca Roanhorse draws upon the legends and cultures of the Aztecs and others. The opening installment, Black Sun, mostly delivers on its promise of prophecy and political intrigue.
The bulk of the story is devoted to world-building and character development. We slowly learn about blind Serapio, his education, and why his is going to Tova, just as we slowly learn about Xiala, her Teek heritage, and way of life. These characters are fascinating, and while Serapio’s story is often told in disruptive flashbacks, it’s a cohesive enough tale that it doesn’t get in the way of the story.
Less fascinating is Naranpa’s tale. As the Sun Priest, she holds much of the power in Tova, and yet she is naive when it comes to the sects she is meant to rule over. She lets herself be goaded into saying and doing ill-advised things, and when her plans go awry– as they often do– she can’t think quickly enough on her feet to wrest control of the situation away from her enemies. She almost invariably lets events wash over her, reacting after the fact when it’s too late, leaving the reader to wonder how she ended up in power in the first place. And while it’s easy to say, ‘Naranpa is human, and so she has flaws and makes mistakes’, reading about a political leader who is surprised by politics at every turn makes for frustrating reading.
Where the story shines is when it returns to Serapio and Xiala, the most engaging characters in the whole book. Their lives and backgrounds are strange and their morality is gray at best, but this makes them all the more fascinating. They are not normal humans, and their outsider status makes them sympathetic, even when they are contemplating doing frightening things. Xiala’s devil-may-care attitude and loose morals make her fun to be with, and Serapio’s youthful certainty and belief in the rightness of his cause actually make him endearing. He knows what he is walking into and he knows what it will cost him. But he is prepared to do it anyway.
For all its world-building and character work, however, the majority of Black Sun‘s story is spent on those two elements, with only a little room left for plot, unless one counts the political plotting Naranpa attempts to engage in. Like a storm at sea, Black Sun builds slowly, its story rising and rising across its 464 pages until it finally bursts into action– but only at the very end, leaving its main characters in precarious positions and coming to no conclusions.
Black Sun is not a self-contained story, and it leaves many questions unanswered (hopefully to be addressed in the next two volumes). But if one is looking for a rich new fantasy set in a world that’s not yet another half-baked clone of medieval England, Black Sun is a solid opening to what promises to be dark and compelling trilogy.
Thank you to NetGalley and Saga Press for providing me with a free eBook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.