Book review: Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse

(courtesy Simon & Schuster)

A world-weary lament often thrown up, laced with more than a little weary resignation, is that there is nothing truly original under the sun, the product of the fact that though humanity is rich with imagination, that there are so many types of stories that can be told.

True though that may be, it doesn’t preclude the ability of any author, of taking those well-used pieces and creating something truly, remarkably original which is precisely what gifted writer Rebecca Roanhorse has done with Black Sun, the first entry in her Between Earth and Sky trilogy which has been joined by Fevered Star this year.

Inspired by the pre-Columbia cultures of the Americas, which the author acknowledges usually receives scant attention in the fantasy genre which is more likely than not to set itself in an anglocentric, medieval landscape, Black Sun is that rare, precious thing – a novel which tells an epically involving story populated by memorably complex characters which carries with it portent far beyond the pellmell narrative which grips you from the first page to the thrilling last.

Fantasies are generally intensely told tales since they come with titanic struggles between good and evil, between the sclerotic and the innovative, the aged and the new, but somehow Black Sun amps up the intensity still further, its story one of outliers finally finding themselves at the centre of the world from which they have long been excluded.

“Balam narrowed his eyes, considering. As if he knew she had armed herself. As if he approved. After a moment he turned from her and continued down to the docks.

‘Let us hope you are wrong, Captain,’ he said over his shoulder, ‘for both our sakes.'” (P. 37)

It is this element that really sets Black Sun apart from many other fantasy stories with which it shares a highly intelligent, emotionally resonant genre.

Into its heavily stratified, chokingly hierarchical world where the elite, the Sky Made, sit atop a social pile which, quite literally in the city of Tova spills from the top of the cliffs down to the river valleys below where the poor exist in grinding, crime-ridden poverty, step three figures, all of whom will come to change the established order in ways no one sees coming.

They don’t see it coming, of course, because the priests and the upper crust who hold the reins of power a regime set in place three hundred years earlier to stop warring city states and religion from carrying on their ceaseless zero sum game, honestly believe theirs is a world that will never cease to exist.

So consumed are they by a system that favours them even as it brutally disadvantages others that they will to see, in its full scope anyway, what it happening around them as groups such as Carrion Crow, who believe their god will come back to them and liberate them from oppression, work to elevate themselves and that in which they believe, back to a prominence taken from them by people who believe theirs to be the only truth worth upholding.

It’s a colonialist mindset that was put in place with supposedly the best of intentions but which has not begun consuming itself, a dynamic which the gilded elite fail to see, an oversight that shall, inevitably, be their downfall.

(courtesy Simon & Schuster / Photo by Stephen Land)

Roanhorse, who writes with empathy, insight and an exciting gift for investing action with meaning and emotional resonance of the most captivating kind, has made Black Sun one of those rallying cry novels that feels like far more than just a book.

A brilliantly good book yes, but one which is far more than the words on its page.

Revolutionary in intent, it feels like one of those stories that sits on the edge of great and monumental change as three people drive the world that is to the one that will be – god-within-a-man Serapio, who is the great hope of his people, even if they are unaware of him yet, ship captain Xiala, a disgraced member of a race known as the Teek who prefer to live in secret sheltered from those who mock and fear their gifts for mind control and water calming, and the Sun Priest herself, Naranpa who though she sits atop the pinnacle of paper will never be seen as an equal by the Sky Made because she comes from the earth below.

All three of these immeasurably beguiling characters, whom Roanhorse realises with real substance, emotional honesty and a humanity which stands in marked contrast to those who scornfully dismiss them, are central to Black Sun‘s immersively alive narrative which is always building to something big, bold and epic and which, even in its louder, most action-packed moments, possesses a ruminative core that gives it a meditative quality that is thoroughly captivating.

What did she do?

Powageh grasped Serapio’s arm and shook him hard. His teeth rattled in his head, his stomach protested around the unfamiliar foods he had consumed. He lay in the brittle grass, wrung out and helpless, shivering as the coming winter descended upon him and the old priest laughed.

‘My boy,’ xe said, awe in his xir voice, ‘ you are more than simply a vessel. You are the weapon that will bring the Sun Priest and the Watchers to their knees.'” (P. 294)

It is rare to find a narrative this alive and involving, this full of things happening, that feels like it’s also philosophically aware, cognisant of history and readily understanding of the great weight and meaning of what takes place within it.

Quite apart from the fact that it breaks the mould of most other fantasies and join the growing rank of stories in the genre giving us characters of greatly welcome cultural and sexual diversity, Black Sun feels like one of those novels that is far more than just another thrilling story set in a world set apart from our own.

It reflects many of the issues that beset our world from sclerotic political power structures, to inequality, racism, colonialist hangovers and dismissal of those on the margin whether they are the poor, the sexually divergent or the “wrong” gender, and does so with a story so utterly enlivening and full of power and promise that you can’t help but feel energised by the possibilities it offers up.

Written in a way that is as lyrical and poetic as it grounded and honest, Black Sun is a gem of a novel, a story that sings the hope of things changing, that knows how great the obstacles are and how bloody the destruction of the old order might be because those guarding refuse to relinquish even a sliver of power, but which dares to believe that change can come and which gives so much time and emotional weight to telling the tales of the marginalised and dispossessed and evoking why they fight so hard to claim some measure of society’s long-denied bounty for their own.

A blisteringly good series debut in ways almost too numerous to mention, Black Sun sizzles with characters so alive and rich in humanity that you are rooting for them to succeed at every turn, a story that feels like one of the ages and yet wholly , refreshingly its own, and enthralling world-building that offers a world unlike anything we have seen in fantasy before but which feels groundedly relatable and true, offering a story that feels epically expansive and intimately meaningful all at once as the world it brings to the fore so richly and wonderfully changes far beyond anyone’s reckoning.

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