It’s not very often that I will write a post about an “it” book of the season. But it’s good to be flexible, ya know? And so today I am bringing you my thoughts about Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse.
I’ll admit to having some mixed feelings when I heard about this book. Sure, it sounded pretty wonderful…epic fantasy based around the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas? Book one of a projected trilogy? Maps on the inside cover? Normally I’d be all over it. But I was just a touch worried about Maggie and Kai and Rissa and Coyote and Tah—the gang of characters I’d grown attached to from Roanhorse’s Sixth World series, which so far includes Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts. I wondered if I’d have some resentment towards the world of Black Sun.
I needn’t have worried. If there’s one thing that Roanhorse is good at (actually there are several), it’s giving you characters who are lovably prickly and utterly relatable. Black Sun delivers, and I can fully say that I am now just as invested in Xiala, Serapio, Naranpa, and Okoa, and will eagerly welcome whichever book comes next.
According to the book’s afterword by the author, Black Sun is the realization of her long-standing dream to write an epic fantasy that eschewed the western European setting which dominates so much of the genre. She writes, “…I think most readers believe that all fantasy must be set in a fake England in order to be considered epic.” She points out that more and more contemporary fantasy is being seen in secondary worlds inspired by non-European cultures, but that it is still very rare to see any influenced by the Americas. She postulates that “…part of the reason is the persistent myth that the Indigenous cultures pre-conquest were primitive and had little to offer, when the opposite is true.”
I loved the world of this book. Both the physical landscapes and the cultures are immersive in a way that makes it apparent that Roanhorse has developed them fully—I bet she could write a Silmarillion-esque history of this universe. To her credit, she never overwhelms you with it, but instead leads you into it as though wading gradually into deeper and deeper water. In the afterword, she credits some of her research books about the Maya, Aztec, and Mississippian cultures, which have gone straight onto my reading list.
Black Sun hits a lot of the notes of the epic fantasy: there are multiple characters, locations, and narrative arcs. There is magic, and danger, and death. The world, as I’ve mentioned, is full and complete with its own histories and mythologies, and (within the context of the story) has no link to our own. And as the tale begins, the fate of this world does indeed hang in the balance. It is most certainly epic in scale.
However, the story is not one of good vs. evil, but rather of a lot of characters inhabiting areas of moral ambiguity. This isn’t the hero’s journey (also a very Western idea) of a “chosen one” saving the world. Instead we are following different characters from different places, with different loyalties and goals, and none of them are heroes or villains. My favourite kind of story is one with all sorts of grey areas.
Black Sun also does a great job of dangling bits of backstory, or foreshadowing things to come, in a way that leaves you itching to read more. The ending of the book is, if not exactly a cliffhanger, at least an inching to the edge of the cliff and peering over the side.
Well? Have I convinced you? I hope so.