Black Sun
Rebecca Roanhorse

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.

This was a really interesting read. If there’s one thing I want to read more of, it’s pre-Columbian fiction/nonfiction/fantasy/what have you, (1) because pre-Columbian cultures and histories are fascinating and (2) because I know very little about said cultures and histories and would like to learn more. (If you’re in the same boat, I highly recommend picking up Memory of Fire: Genesis [Eduardo Galeano], which I read last year. I have yet to get my hands on the two sequels, but they’re on my list.)

Black Sun is the first installment in the Between Earth and Sky trilogy, an epic fantasy set in a world inspired by the pre-Columbian Americas. This is a world where music has power and mermaids are real, where giant crows are bred as warrior mounts and no one is disturbed by the idea of a third gender. They do have a lot of problems based on class and race, but, well, nobody’s perfect. The story is narrated by turns by Xiala, a Teek ship captain who can manipulate the sea with her Song; Naranpa, the reigning Sun Priest, who bootstrapped her way to the top but now finds her life under constant threat; Serapio, a blind man burdened with glorious purpose; and Okoa, a crow-riding warrior from Serapio’s mother’s clan, who finds himself in the middle of a religious uprising despite his best attempts to avoid it. Along with the chaos of their everyday lives, they have to deal with the Convergence, an upcoming solar eclipse that will affect all of them in different ways.

The story starts ten years before the Convergence. Serapio, twelve years old and not yet blind, is prepared by his mother for the ritual that will make him blind. In so doing, she also makes him into the avatar of her god, the Carrion Crow, from whom her clan derived its name. The ritual is almost interrupted by Serapio’s father, but his mother manages to carry it out, sacrificing herself in the process. Ten years later, Xiala wakes up hungover in a prison in the city of Cuecola, having been arrested for disorderly conduct as well as for sleeping with a married woman. She is unexpectedly sprung from prison by a rich man with a mission: in exchange for his assistance, he wants her to ferry the 22-year-old Serapio from Cuecola to the holy city of Tova for unspecified reasons. Unfortunately, he has a very tight timeline, and meeting it would require Xiala to take a dangerous route that no sane person would ever attempt. She accepts despite some serious misgivings, and even manages to befriend Serapio before her crew mutinies halfway through their trip.

Meanwhile, Sun Priest Naranpa organizes a priestly parade through Tova in an effort to make the priesthood accessible to the common people, but it fails spectacularly when she is almost killed by an assassin. The only thing that saves her is her one friend and former lover, Iktan, the Priest of Knives and head of the Order of Knives (tsiyo). Naranpa insists on finishing the parade and returns to the celestial tower in one piece, and, though shaken, continues with her plans to bridge the gap between the priests and the people they are supposed to be serving. However, most of the priests come from more privileged backgrounds than hers and resent both her rank and her plans, while the Carrion Crow clan distrusts her because of the genocide carried out by her predecessors. Mixed into the clashes between the priests and the people is the stealthy rise of the Odohaa, a group of cultists who believe the Crow God is coming to avenge the people slaughtered on the orders of the previous Sun Priest.

In the midst of all the tensions, Iktan almost kicks off a war between the priesthood and the Carrion Crows when xe attacks Okoa, mistakenly believing that Okoa was trying to murder Naranpa. Naranpa forges ahead as best she can, but, though she fights to maintain her authority, the other priests conspire against her and eventually overthrow her after a brutal funeral melee. The only bright side to the mutiny, at least as far as Naranpa is concerned, is that she manages to escape the priests who remove her from the tower and thus is not present when the Odohaa turn out to be right, because the Crow God – in the person of Serapio – does indeed come home to roost, by which I mean he butchers all the priests during their Convergence ceremony, exactly as his mother intended him to when she sewed his eyes shut ten years ago. The only thing he doesn’t manage to do is kill the real Sun Priest because, as previously stated, Naranpa has been deposed and is not available for him to murder. Following the slaughter, he finds himself at loose ends and still alive in clear defiance of the fact that he was supposed to die after carrying out his mission, and is discovered and carried off by Okoa on the back of a giant crow.

One of the most wonderful things about this book is its sheer diversity. Though it takes place on one continent, there are several different ethnic groups, orientations, and identities, including a nonbinary gender called bayeki, which uses the pronouns xe/xir. This whole world was incredibly detailed, but the world-building never distracted from the story. The characters were engaging and relatable; I predictably fell hard for Xiala, who in addition to having magical sea-moving powers is a hilarious, unrepentant badass.

She was no fan of merchant lords. In fact, it was working for a merchant lord that had landed her [in prison], in an admittedly roundabout way. If Lord Pech hadn’t tried to double-cross her, she wouldn’t have had to throw him into the ocean.

And, though she has a literal horde out for her blood, I really felt bad for Naranpa, who genuinely wants to serve the people who hate her. She tries so hard, but she is saddled with a terrible legacy, which neatly blocks all her efforts to make peace. However, she is at least alive by the end of the book, and I also know that Iktan managed to avoid Serapio’s bloodbath as well. Though Serapio kills the Priest of Knives, I really don’t see Iktan going down that easily. Throughout the book xe has made a habit of leaving a dedicant tsiyo in xir place, wearing xir mask to keep the other priests from realizing a subsitution has been made, and that clearly was the case here. That, combined with the fact that Iktan was said to be razing the celestial tower in search of Naranpa as well as the even more telling fact that the tsiyo Serapio killed had long hair while Iktan had recently had a haircut, has convinced me that Iktan is still at large somewhere in Tova, which is good because I like Iktan. Xe may be slippery and not entirely trustworthy, but xe is so devoted to Naranpa that I would find it odd if xe willingly paraded out with all the other priests as planned, knowing that those priests had first overthrown Naranpa and then kidnapped her from her room. In retrospect, I even kind of wonder if Iktan was aware that something was coming – even if xe didn’t necessarily know what that something might be – and participated in Naranpa’s house arrest for the purposes of sending a decoy out in her place. Naranpa has amply demonstrated that neither wild horses nor death threats will keep her from doing her duty, so this is a strategy I myself would have adopted if I’d been in charge of her security.

Whatever the case, this was a really intriguing first installment, and I am now in wait mode for book two, particularly as Black Sun ended on a rather cruel cliffhanger. I am seriously considering reading it again even though it is patently not listed on my official TBR. Now that we’ve been introduced to the characters and the world, I fully anticipate that books two and three will be even better than book one, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store.