One of the things I was most impressed by in this first novel of Rebecca Roanhorse’s new epic fantasy series is how effortless it all feels. She’s created a brand new universe using the indigenous cultures of the Americas as its basis, and there isn’t a single moment of self-conscious telling instead of showing. It’s a wonderful repudiation of the default Euro-Mediterranean settings of most English-language adult epic fantasies, centering an under-explored/represented facet of world history in a way that feels natural, as if to show how perfectly suited the cultures are to this sort of interpretation, and how much we as readers have been missing out by not encouraging fantastic fiction from authors with roots in those traditions.
The next thing I was most impressed by was how our protagonists feel less like conventional heroes and more like real people with complex motivations just doing their best to survive their extraordinary circumstances while still remaining true to themselves and their beliefs. The two native Tovans, the Sun Priest Naranpa and the trained Shield Okoa, are the characters closest to being traditional heroes, as they explicitly seek to do the most good for their peoples. Teek ship captain Xiala is mostly a hedonist but won’t hesitate to put her own life in danger in order to save her crew. And even Serapio, the enigmatic figure blinded as a boy and intended for use as a vessel for a dead god, acts not out of selfishness or small-mindedness but because he’s been trained for no other purpose than to challenge the priestly Watchers who decimated his clan of his grandparents’ generation (trigger warning for the abuse he endured as a child tho. His mom and teachers were some truly fucked up people.)
The paths of our four protagonists are set on a collision course when Xiala is hired to carry a mysterious passenger from the southern city of Cuecola across the open waters of the Crescent Sea to Tova, the holy city from which the Watchers rule after quelling the old gods and barbaric magics in favor of their more scientific religion. Xiala’s unique heritage makes her the captain most likely to be able to bring Serapio to Tova in time for the Solstice, when he will fulfil a dark and bloody prophecy. But travel across the open sea carries more challenges than even a Teek can overcome on her own, and she and Serapio soon find themselves bonding in unlikely ways.
Meanwhile, Naranpa has risen from literally lowly origins to hold one of the highest positions in Tovan society. Mindful of the Watchers’ history and concerned at their growing insularity, she wants to spread good works amongst the Tovan people, but finds herself involved in deadly politics both in and outside her religious orders. Then there’s Okoa, called back from training at the military college to serve as his sister’s Shield when she takes her place as the Matron of their clan. Cultists among his people want his aid in training them to fight back against the priests, but Okoa is loath to encourage bloodshed, even when a misunderstanding with the Watchers causes a riot that nearly costs him his life.
The way that these narratives are woven together is complex and wildly entertaining, expertly drawing together disparate plot threads into a brilliant first installment of quests and prophecies, politics and survival, all in a unique setting that’s drawn with such easy familiarity as to feel no more exotic than any other fantasy world’s. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on the rest of this series and seeing how all this plays out.
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse was published October 13th by Saga Press and is available from all good booksellers, including
Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.