You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers for this book, as well as for others in the Between Earth and Sky series. Other reviews in this series can be found here.
Wow. No thoughts, just chaos and Tova Hangover. (Just kidding. I do, of course, have some thoughts that I’ve scraped off the insides of my head. That’s why I’m here trying to make myself sound somewhat coherent instead of howling at the moon while I wait for the third book.) I’ll admit to being somewhat lukewarm about this series when I first picked it up, but this book might have just catapulted it onto my as-yet-unwritten list of my favorite series of all time.
Fevered Star picks up in the immediate aftermath of Black Sun, a day or two after Okoa removed Serapio from the blood-soaked remains of the Watchers, the priesthood that was originally created to keep the peace between several independent city-states within the continent called the Meridian. Three hundred years ago, a spearmaiden named Seuq secretly consumed a fruit called godflesh, which granted her the power to manipulate others through their dreams. Upon her return to her home city, Hokaia, she and her fellow Dreamwalkers used this power to establish dominion over their sister cities. A bloody war followed, but Seuq and her army were eventually defeated by forces from the cities Cuecola and Tova, and the Treaty of Hokaia signed. In the present day, Tova is home to the descendants of the warriors who rose up against Seuq – the elite matron-led clans Carrion Crow, Water Strider, Golden Eagle, and Winged Serpent – but it also includes a seething underbelly called the Coyote’s Maw, born when the Coyote clan was expelled and forced to make their home below the rest of the Sky Made clans. All of them stand in the shadow of the Watchers, whose duties include the regulation of magic and religion. The magic used by the priesthood has been rebranded as “science,” and all traces of traditional magic and religion have been stamped out over the centuries.
Serapio is the result of three hundred years of suppression, coupled with a genocidal attack carried out against the Carrion Crows by an earlier generation of priests. Raised for the sole purpose of vengeance and endowed with the power of a god, he singlehandedly massacred the Watchers during the solar eclipse that weakened the power of the sun god. Despite his overall success, he failed to kill the current Sun Priest, Naranpa, who was recently overthrown by her own slaughtered underlings and only escaped the bloodbath by sheer chance. Her life was saved by Zataya, a witch employed by her youngest brother, Denaochi (“Ochi”), who has clawed his way through a violent childhood to become one of the crime bosses who rule the Maw; however, she was also unexpectedly granted the power of her god, making her a living avatar of the same class as Serapio. With neither sun nor crow ascendant, the eclipse that wasn’t even supposed to last fifteen minutes has hung around for the last couple of days in a state of seemingly permanent limbo.
While the world waits uneasily for the end of the eclipse, Xiala sets out to find Serapio and stumbles across Iktan, who survived the massacre for the same reason Naranpa did: xe simply was not there. Though xe has some plans for the future, the loss of the tower, Naranpa, and the entire priesthood has left xir lost, directionless, and ready to drown xir sorrows in alcohol. With more in common than they really admit, and without realizing that Serapio is frantically looking for Xiala, Xiala and Iktan tag along with a small army led by the supremely inexperienced Ziha Golden Eagle as she marches to Hokaia to renegotiate the original Treaty with the other signatories. Both Golden Eagle and hangers-on arrive in Hokaia to find themselves greeted by the aftermath of an apparently hostile takeover, which has resulted in a complete change in Hokaian leadership. They are joined by a delegation from the Cuecolan House of Seven, whose number includes Lord Balam, the man who hired Xiala to take Serapio to Tova against all sane advice; and, to Xiala’s complete horror, her mother Mahina has also arrived at the head of a delegation from Teek. Captured by her mother, Xiala strikes a secret bargain with Balam: in exchange for his agreement to protect Serapio, she will return to Teek as his spy. As a final favor before she is taken back to Teek, Xiala asks Balam to tell Iktan that Naranpa is still alive.
Meanwhile, Serapio and Naranpa struggle to find their respective places in the new order of things without losing their humanity. Having fulfilled his intended mission, Serapio exists without purpose and without the full powers of his god. He finally meets his fellow Crows, but, where he expected to welcomed by one clan united by a common purpose, he finds instead a fractious mob torn into factions by the split between the ruling family and the Odohaa cultists. This is a lonely, isolating position to be in, and it is exacerbated by the Odohaa, who hail him as their messiah while matron Esa – daughter of the previous Crow matron and sister of Okoa – tries to use him for her own ends. Okoa is more open to the idea of working with Serapio instead of openly opposing him, but every time he brings this up, his own family accuses him of being too soft on the Odohaa. Regardless of their personal politics, none of the Crow clan is interested in Serapio as an individual; though the Odohaa fall all over themselves trying to serve him, their goals are strictly self-interested, and he is more of a rallying point than a leader. Their obsessive worship makes him increasingly uncomfortable as Odohaa new and old gather at the gates of Carrion Crow, and they push him so hard that he accidentally discovers a new dimension to his powers as the avatar of the crow god.
Down in the Maw, Naranpa crawls out of her own tomb and makes her way back to the surface, where she reunites with Ochi. Together they revive the long-forgotten Coyote clan, but their meeting with the other clan matrons goes sideways when Ochi sacrifices himself to save Naranpa from an assassin. Furious and grieving, with the blood of her brother’s murderer still on her hands, Naranpa abdicates as matron and names Sedaysa, another Maw boss, in her place. In the absence of everything and everyone who ever mattered to her, she challenges Serapio directly. The battle goes badly for her until Serapio, suffering from a wound he received during the massacre of the Watchers, asks Naranpa if she can heal him. Though they remain cautious of each other, they also realize that they are not each other’s enemies. Predatory forces are gathering at their doorstep, encouraged by the chaos caused by the crow god; Golden Eagle is looking to rule the city, while others seek to plunder it. Knowing that their gods will not be enough to protect Tova in the event of an invasion, Naranpa charges Serapio with uniting the clans by any means necessary, even though no one will thank him for it.
With no one left to stop him, Serapio rises from the fight with a newfound sense of purpose. Despite his earlier desire to connect with the people of Carrion Crow, the relatives of his mother, he knows that he will never be accepted or loved, and dedicates himself to protecting the city while also reshaping it to fill in the lonely gaps in his life. He raises a fortress from the bones of the priests he slaughtered and calls for his most fervent Odohaa loyalists, who have some slight doubts but nevertheless cut their own throats on his orders. Augmented by the power granted to him by the sun god’s healing magic, Serapio reinforces his dead followers with skeletal armor before bringing them back to life to serve as his honor guard, called Tuyon. While he turns his attention to imposing his rule upon the rest of the Sky Made, Naranpa leaves the city in search of a mentor to teach her to control her magic. Her path is unclear at first, but she soon decides to start in the north with the Graveyard of the Gods, whence originated the godflesh that sparked a war.
First thought: This is so much better than Black Sun. I say that with all due affection and respect for Black Sun, which is still an excellent introduction to the world of the Meridian. But I find that the pilot episode tends to be the weakest in any series – aside from the Game of Thrones and Arrested Development pilots, which remain the best opening episodes I’ve ever seen – because its purpose is establishing the universe and the characters. Thus, I was sort of on the fence about Black Sun, but I was right in saying that the series will really take off now that the pilot is over. I now understand the world a lot better, and can therefore talk about it in greater detail than I did in my first review. It helps that the world is a good deal more fleshed out in this installment: Roanhorse has filled in a lot of the gaps from the first book, such as the origins of the Treaty and the reason magic has been so thoroughly codified. I appreciate this information, which is a little info-dumpy but not overwhelming. Also, I really need Iktan to narrate all info-dumps going forward. Xir casual explanation of that one time Ziha’s cousin Abah bit off some random boy’s tongue for no other reason than to find out was absolutely everything I never knew I needed, even as I was asking xir if xe was just making that up. (Xe wasn’t. I’m not really sure how I feel about that.)
Second thought: I knew Iktan was still alive. I fucking knew it. If anything happens to Iktan in the next book, up to and including stubbed toes and bad breakfasts, I will be Very Unhappy. This series runs on the strength of its characters and I love them all (er, mostly), but Iktan is my special favorite. Xe is such a psycho smartass that my unreasonable affection was all but inevitable. Yet at the same time, xe is still a pampered priest, born into privilege and always ready to complain about the lack of a hot breakfast, and also completely unequipped to deal with a hangover. The dichotomy between the ruthless, smooth-talking killer and the cosseted Sky Made scion is seamless, lovable, and hilarious. We don’t see quite as much of Iktan in Black Sun, though xe is obviously still present, and now I kind of wish we had. More than that, I really wish we could’ve gotten just one scene in which Naranpa and Serapio were rounded up by their loved ones. I have this very firm picture in my mind of Iktan and Xiala turning up in the middle of a battle and scolding their respective avatars, and just completely shaming them into making their peace with each other.
Having said that, I love where Naranpa and Serapio ended up on their own. I don’t want either one of them to die, and I like that they worked things out between themselves, though of course the world is about to get a lot darker. And even though everyone she knows and loves would scold her for it – rightly so, in my jaded opinion – I love Naranpa’s capacity for kindness and trust. She can get short-tempered when pushed, say, by a vicious nineteen-year-old (naming no names, Abah), but her instinct is always to help. Even knowing that Serapio might kill her, she heals him anyway because she also knows that she would rather save another life than preserve her own. She is the Sun Priest Tova needs, and it kills me that she never gets a chance to prove it to the people who need her most. At the same time, however, her compassion does not make her stupid. She sees that her kindness has been ineffective against the stubborn Sky Made elitists, and she tacitly approves Serapio’s harsher tactics, knowing that Tova needs to be broken before it can be repaired. Will this work in the long run? I don’t know. Only one way to find out.
The only thing that gives me pause right now is the characterization of Okoa, who is slightly puzzling. In the first book he is said to be beloved by his people in a way that his sister is not, but this is so far completely unsupported. His people don’t seem particularly fond of him, and he as a character doesn’t really invite adulation. He is stubborn and prickly, brave but often rude in his dealings with others. If he’s meant to be a leader, his leadership qualities are not obvious as of this writing. On the other hand, he is still young and he has room to grow, so I suppose we’ll see. I’m hoping he gets better; his chapters are rather tiresome and not especially memorable, and I have no idea where Roanhorse is going with his story. So much else is going on in this world that I almost forgot his main story involves Iktan murdering his mother.
Even so, this was pretty much the perfect sequel to Black Sun, and I cannot believe I now have to wait a year to get my hands on the final book. Fevered Star has built significantly upon the foundation Black Sun provided, but it has managed to do so in ways that make perfect sense. Roanhorse is a skillful storyteller; unlike other writers, she hasn’t bombarded me with more information than I can absorb, but her world still has so much nuance and depth. I feel like we’re at the top of the tsunami, with the ground as yet unseen beneath us. Somewhat surprisingly, this uncertainty does not worry me. With this series, Roanhorse has created a complex, absorbing world that draws me in every time, come what may. She has already built up so much momentum, and I am so excited to see what she does next.