Epics are a form of literature as old as storytelling itself and continues to be just as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago when The Epic of Gilgamesh was first told. Every culture has its own tales, passed down from generation to generation, and literature has continued to keep this particular genre relevant. Even today, modern authors still write epic fiction, even if the format has changed from poetry to prose. No one could look at The Lord of the Rings trilogy or A Song of Ice and Fire as anything other than modern epic stories, but those are far from the only ones. All epics share a few common characteristics. An epic will feature multiple main characters, each on their own important journey. Sometimes this journey will take them across several locales, other times the journey will not a physical one. Magic may play a part, but it is usually rare and, when it does appear, can be exceedingly powerful. Often, the stakes will threaten the world, but the characters growth is just as important to the story as the plot.
Black Sun is the latest novel by Rebecca Roanhorse, and the first entry into the Between Earth and Sky trilogy, although I am a little late in reading this book from October 2020. Her fifth novel overall, Roanhorse is mostly known for her speculative fiction, combining science-fiction and fantasy, and for pulling influence from various indigenous American cultures. Native Americans have been chronically underrepresented in mainstream fiction or, when characters or cultural influences are included, they may often feature stereotypes or a lack of understanding of the multitude of cultures present on this continent. Aside from a brief but memorable foray into Star Wars, Roanhorse’s fiction has done the work to expand representation of native and indigenous Americans to a wider audience. While previous work was mostly influenced by the Navajo, likely due to her time living in the Navajo Nation, Black Sun pulls from many cultures. My sadly uneducated eye was able to see possible Aztec and Navajo influences in this new fictional world, but I am certain many more cultures will be able to see themselves reflected.
Black Sun takes place in the fictional land of The Meridian. Centered around a large bay called the Crescent Sea, Roanhorse has created a work of epic fantasy influenced wholly on pre-Columbian indigenous cultures. After decades of fantasy entirely focused on Europe, it has been exceedingly refreshing to see authors create worlds that break away from that one part of the world. The Meridian is home to many cultures and ethnicities, along with several major cities and trading routes. While we only see three or four locations during the course of the book, many more are referenced and may be visited in the next two novels of this trilogy. However, the main setting of the book is the city of Tova. A metropolis situated around and above a large river, Tova is home to several powerful clans and serves as the headquarters of the dominant religious organization in the region. Roanhorse does not just show us one part of the city either. She does the work and ensures that readers become familiar with every district, down to the poorest quarter. The city feels alive in a way only the greatest authors are able to write.
The novel follow three main characters on their separate, but connected, journeys. We open with Serapio watching as his mother performs a ritual to both blind and scar him, an effort to turn the young boy into a vessel for a god to be reborn. This opening chapter sets the tone and expectations of the book wonderfully, letting readers know exactly what they are getting into. Roanhorse then jumps forward in time many years, to the present day of the novel, introducing Xiala, a Teek sailor and captain down on her luck after running afoul of a local lord. Finally, Roanhorse jumps forward to the night before the novel’s climax, introducing us to Naranpa, the head of Tova’s religious order, as she barely survives the worst day of her life. The introductions to these characters are wildly different, and Roanhorse effectively showcases their personalities and personal struggles with only a few pages. Three chapters in, and the characters are alive in the reader’s mind, although I will admit that it took some time to become invested in Naranpa’s story. Xiala is a scene-stealer and you can almost feel the character’s charisma within the page. The novel itself is told in a close third-person point-of-view, meaning each chapter inhabits one character’s head, and we see the world through their eyes for as many pages as their POV lasts. While the various plot lines do start off relatively separate, the connections quickly become apparent to readers, leaving the question of when the main characters will finally meet.
Naranpa’s story remains in the major city of Tova, and she is our main entry point into this metropolis and its inner workings. When we meet her, she has been the Sun Priest, the head of the powerful religious order known as the Watchers, for a few years. In the world of the novel, each head priest is named as a successor by their predecessor, and serves until death. Naranpa, who began her religious career as a servant from the slums of Tova, known as the Maw, is immediately shown to be an outsider in more ways than one. She faces opposition within the priesthood for wanting to reform and modernize the order, and still faces hostility without due to the actions of a previous generations of priest. Sometime in the past of the novel, the priesthood led a slaughter of the Carrion Crow clan, one of the major clans of Tova, due to heresy. Known as the Night of Knives, this has remained a dark mark on the city. Naranpa’s story starts off a bit slow as Roanhorse takes time to build layers of intrigue, and allows readers to see the world through Naranpa’s veil of relative naivete until she is forced to confront harsh reality. By the end of the novel, she is easily one of the most interesting and engaging characters.
Meanwhile, Xiala and Serapio meet early in the novel and remain inseparable for many of its pages. Serapio, when we meet him as an adult, is dark and mature man who seems to see things others cannot, even through his blinded eyes. Unlike Xiala and Naranpa, who suffer from doubts and struggle to move through their respective tensions, Serapio walks through the world with a level of control and confidence almost unheard of. And yet, it never comes across as arrogant. This is a man who has lived a very hard life, but knows exactly what his purpose is. By the end of the novel, even as Xiala’s company has begun to affect him, Serapio never wavers from his mission or purpose. Xiala, meanwhile, can be best described as a mess of a person. We first meet her in a jail cell, having been arrested for drunkenness, fighting, and sleeping with another woman in an apparently homophobic village. Xiala is Teek, an ethnicity and culture wholly unlike the rest of the Meridian and surrounded in fear and superstition. She is a trusted captain due to her magical singing, a power possessed by all Teek through their divine connection to the ocean, but bigotry ultimately governs every person’s interactions with her. Her and Serapio are both consummate outsiders throughout the story, and manage to find a place to belong in each other, even as destiny conspires to get in their way.
Black Sun is, thankfully, only the first novel in a planned trilogy Roanhorse has titled Between Earth and Sky. This is one of those books where readers will run to their computers to look up future release dates as soon as they finish the last page. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, we do not know when book two will be released. This is the rare story where every single character is interesting and engaging, and the plot is incredibly compelling. It never felt like there was a slow moment or a chapter that lost my interest while reading. Further, the climax of the book leaves off in such a way that you cannot help but want more. Unlike many first entries into a trilogy, which feel usually have a concrete resolution, Black Sun follows in the footsteps of epics and is clearly just a first chapter. This is one novel absolutely worth reading.
Black Sun can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 6 days
Next on the List: Within Without by Jeff Noon. Thank you to Angry Robot for providing a review copy of Within Without!