Black Sun

by Rebecca Roanhorse

Cover image

Series: Between Earth and Sky #1
Publisher: Saga Press
Copyright: October 2020
ISBN: 1-5344-3769-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 454

Buy at Powell's Books

Serapio has been crafted and trained to be the vessel for a god. He grew up in Obregi land, far from his ancestral home, but he will return to Tova at the appropriate time and carry the hopes of the Carrion Crow clan with him.

Xiala is a ship captain, a woman, and a Teek. That means she's a target. Teek have magic, which makes them uncanny and dangerous. They're also said to carry that magic in their bones, which makes them valuable in ways that are not pleasant for the Teek. Running afoul of the moral codes of Cuecola is therefore even more dangerous to her than it would be to others, which is why she accepts a bargain to run errands for a local lord for twelve years, paid at the end of that time with ownership of a ship and crew. The first task: ferry a strange man to the city of Tova.

Meanwhile, in Tova, the priestess Naranpa has clawed her way to the top of the Sky Made hierarchy from an inauspicious beginning in the poor district of Coyote's Maw. She's ruthlessly separated herself from her despised beginnings and focused her attention on calming Tova in advance of the convergence, a rare astronomical alignment at the same time as the winter solstice. But Carrion Crow holds a deep-seated grudge at their slaughter by the priesthood during the Night of Knives, and Naranpa's position atop the religious order that partly rules Tova's fractious politics is more precarious than she thinks.

I am delighted that more fantasy is drawing on mythologies and histories other than the genre default of western European. It's long overdue for numerous reasons and a trend to be rewarded. But do authors writing fantasy in English who reach for Mesoamerican cultures have to gleefully embrace the excuse to add more torture? I'm developing an aversion to this setting (which I do not want to do!) because every book seems to feature human sacrifice, dismemberment, or some other horror show.

Roanhorse at least does not fill the book with that (there's lingering child abuse but nothing as sickening as the first chapter), but that makes the authorial choice to make the torture one's first impression of this book even odder. Our introduction to Serapio is a scene that I would have preferred to have never read, and I don't think it even adds much to the plot. Huge warnings for people who don't want to read about a mother torturing her son, or about eyes in that context.

Once past that introduction, Black Sun settles into a two-thread fantasy, one following Xiala and Serapio's sea voyage and the other following Naranpa and the political machinations in Tova. Both the magic systems and the political systems are different enough to be refreshing, and there are a few bits of world-building I enjoyed (a city built on top of rocks separated by deep canyons and connected with bridges, giant intelligent riding crows, everything about the Teek). My problem was that I didn't care what happened to any of the characters. Naranpa spends most of the book dithering and whining despite a backstory that should have promised more dynamic and decisive responses. The other character from Tova introduced somewhat later in the book is clearly "character whose story will appear in the next volume"; here, he's just station-keeping and representing the status quo. And while it's realistic given the plot that Serapio is an abused sociopath, that didn't mean I enjoyed reading his viewpoint or his childhood abuse.

Xiala is the best character in the book by far and I was warming to the careful work she has to do to win over an unknown crew, but apparently Roanhorse was not interested in that. Instead, the focus of Xiala's characterization turns to a bad-boy romance that did absolutely nothing for me. This will be a matter of personal taste; I know this is a plot feature for many readers. But it had me rolling my eyes and turning the pages to get to something more interesting (which, sadly, was not forthcoming). It also plays heavily on magical disabled person cliches, like the blind man being the best fighter anyone has met.

I did not enjoy this book very much, but there were some neat bits of world-building and I could see why other people might disagree. What pushed me into actively recommending against it (at least for now) is the publishing structure.

This is the first book of a trilogy, so one can expect the major plot to not be resolved by the end of the book. But part of the contract with the reader when publishing a book series is that each volume should reach some sense of closure and catharsis. There will be cliffhangers and unanswered questions, but there should also be enough plot lines that are satisfactorily resolved to warrant publishing a book as a separate novel.

There is none of that here. This is the first half (or third) of a novel. It introduces a bunch of plot lines, pulls them together, describes an intermediate crisis, and then simply stops. Not a single plot line is resolved. This is made worse by the fact this series (presumably, as I have only seen the first book) has a U-shaped plot: everything gets worse and worse until some point of crisis, and then presumably the protagonists will get their shit together and things will start to improve. I have soured on U-shaped plots since the first half of the story often feels like a tedious grind (eat your vegetables and then you can have dessert), but it's made much worse by cutting the book off at the bottom of the U. You get a volume, like Black Sun, that's all setup and horror and collapse, with no payoff or optimism.

After two tries, I have concluded that Roanhorse is not for me. This is clearly a me problem rather than a Roanhorse problem, given how many other people love both Black Sun and her Sixth World series, but this is the second book of hers where I mildly enjoyed the world building but didn't care about any of the characters. Ah well, tastes will differ. Even if you get along with Roanhorse, though, I recommend against starting this book until the second half of it is published (currently scheduled for 2022). As it stands, it's a wholly unsatisfying reading experience.

Followed by the not-yet-published Fevered Star.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-08-16

Last modified and spun 2021-08-17