I nearly noped out of Black Sun about a quarter of the way through, thinking that if I wanted to read about teachers abusing a child in supposed service to a greater cause then I would go back and read The Fifth Season and its sequels, but I don’t. I had given Black Sun a pass — well, not a pass, something more of an abeyance — on the horror of a mother ritually scarring her twelve-year-old son and then sewing his eyelids shut in the first chapter because I thought it was an introduction meant to shock, as indeed it did shock me. But when the child of the first chapter returns, blind of course, in the care of a “teacher” who slaps him hard enough to draw blood and determined to teach him to “Make the pain your friend” (Ch. 4), I was very close to done with this book.
I stuck around for the strength of the world-building, because I liked one of the other main characters, and because I wanted to do the book justice when I voted in this year’s Hugo awards. The world, as Roanhorse notes in her acknowledgments, is an amalgam of fantasy riffs on pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas, with some sea navigation lore drawn on Polynesian traditions. Roanhorse has some of the problems with warmed-over Englands that I do, though she puts it a bit more diplomatically. “So much of epic fantasy is set in analogs of western Europe that I think most readers believe that all fantasy must be set in a fake England in order to even be considered epic” and “… it still seems incredibly rare to find a fantasy inspired by the Americas.” (Acknowledgments) And though the window dressing is different, the key places will feel familiar to readers of fantasy: the rough side of town, the priests’ tower, the clan strongholds, the gambling den, the council room.
Xiala, the main character I enjoyed most, is a sailor through and through. She’s lusty and free with money on land, feels most at home on the sea, knows how to motivate a crew, and also knows the kinds of superstitions that sailors are prone to believing. One of the problems is that she is Teek, a type of person about whom sailors have a great many superstitions, many of them better founded than ordinary superstitions, and not all of them positive. The Teek homeland is something like a watery Shangri-La, often sought but never found. And there are no Teek men, as far as anyone in Black Sun besides Xiala knows. That’s in addition to the magical powers that Teek are correctly reputed to have.
Her story begins with waking up in jail, with only dim memories of drink and debauchery from the night before. Problem is, in that port debauching with another woman is a capital offense. So when a local lord bribes the jailer for her freedom and offers her command of a ship, Xiala is not about to ask too many questions. It is, of course, a slightly funny deal. The cargo is just for show, her real task is to deliver a passenger to a certain city on a certain day. And the only way to get there is to sail across the open sea with winter coming on, something no captain with other options would do.
The third main character is Naranpa, a young woman from the poor part of a big city. Sent by her family to be a servant to the presiding priesthood, she gains attention with her intellect and ability, and is taken into their ranks. When the main action of Black Sun begins, she is a young head priest, anointed by her mentor and predecessor. Of course she is in over her head, and of course the established clans and priestly orders do not accept someone of such low origin on top of their pyramid of ranks.
All of this takes place under the shadow of old vendettas and a key prophecy. In the generation of the main characters’ great-grandparents, the priesthood and the other three major clans purged the Crow clan, killing many but not all of them, in an effort to suppress the worship of an old form of the Crow god. Some of the Crows have sworn revenge, and an upcoming eclipse on the winter solstice offers an cosmically opportune moment for them to take it.
That is the cause for which Serapio, the boy from the first chapter, was cut and blinded. He is the passenger that Xiala is supposed to deliver. His promise is death and destruction. And then what?
Part of Black Sun is a tense but exciting story. The sea journey and its sudden changes are the best parts of the tale, though of course the sea can also harbor horrors, and Roanhorse does not hold back in those moments. Violence, when it arrives in Black Sun is not elegant and choreographed, it is sudden and terrible. I found the intrigues among the priesthood less convincing, mainly because I felt that the characters would have seen through the others’ actions more readily, and that people holding the higher offices would have been both older and smarter.
The lines that were carved on the body of a child in Black Sun‘s first chapter run throughout the book. The fulfillment of the prophecy was the reason for that abuse, and it’s what the whole book, finally, is about. I could never forget that for long.
Finally, Black Sun is first of a trilogy. The book reaches the eclipse and the cosmic events associated with it, but leaves many threads loose. I hope that the next part of Between Earth and Sky picks up right after the end of Black Sun, but only Roanhorse knows for sure. I’m not sure that I’ll be reading it. If, however, there was a book of Xiala adventuring and carousing, a Lucky Jack Aubrey of Roanhorse’s fantastic world without all of the cosmic rigamarole, I would read the hell out of that. I just don’t think that’s what she wants to write.
Doreen wrote about Black Sun the same week it was published in 2020. She liked it a lot better than I did, and her review is here.
Black Sun makes five of six finalists for this year’s Hugo in Best Novel that I have read.