‘Black Sun’ weaves fantastic worlds in faraway lands

An ambitious fantasy series is packed with vibrant characters and political intrigue – and isn't stuck in the classic Eurocentric setting, either.

Simon & Schuster
“Black Sun” (Between Earth and Sky), by Rebecca Roanhorse, Gallery/Saga Press, 464 pp.

Cities carved into the facades of steep cliffs. A non-human siren masquerading as a sea captain. A mother who believes her son is a god. If you’ve been looking to add a fantasy saga to your list of must-reads, Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Black Sun” is a good choice. 

Roanhorse is no stranger to weaving fantastic worlds in faraway lands. Her past works include “Star Wars: Resistance Reborn” and “Trail of Lightning,” the first novel in her “The Sixth World” series. “Black Sun,” the first in Roanhorse’s new "Between Earth and Sky" trilogy, is an impressive addition to her catalog.

“Black Sun” begins as many other epic fantasy tales begin: with a prophecy. Serapio, who makes for an intense yet empathetic lead character, is a god. Or at least, that’s what his mother told him after she stitched his eyes shut. After years of training, he’s on a mission to fulfill a destiny he’s quite sure will result in his timely death.

“Black Sun” dizzyingly unfolds across the (somewhat) magical continent of Meridian, taking the reader from the portside land of Cuecola to the holy cliff-city of Tova, where four noble houses rule underneath a religion that canonizes star charts and science, not magic. It’s in Tova where Serapio believes he will find his destiny and he teams up with Xiala, a bisexual, forthright sea captain, to get there. 

Xiala is undoubtedly the stand-out character in “Black Sun.” She’s witty and brutally honest, with a knack for sweet-talking men and women. But she proves to be much more than just a tough exterior. She comes from a non-human race called the Teek, a society of sirens who are able to influence the sea by singing. But being Teek comes at the price of marginalization and persecution. While her skills lend her ferocity and a sense of fearlessness, Xiala is still vulnerable and insecure in her Teek identity. Roanhorse does an excellent job of adding nuance to Xiala’s character, beyond her humorous one-liners and rebellious attitude.

As Serapio and Xiala leave the vibrant port city of Cuecola, we catch a glimpse of the tensions broiling in Tova, dubbed the “gem” of the Meridian continent. In Tova, a religious sect made up of the Watchers and headed by the Sun Priest have a dwindling hold over the lands and over the four clans – the Carrion Crows, the Golden Eagles, the Winged Serpents, and the Water Striders. Because of their kingdom in the cliffs, members of these clans are called “sky made,” an important social signifier in the city of Tova.

It’s at the holy Celestial Tower in Tova where we meet the idyllic and simultaneously frustrating Naranpa, a young woman who has taken over the mantle of “Sun Priest.” She’s eager to change how the citizens of Tova perceive her order, known as the Watchers, who’ve gained a violent reputation in their efforts to maintain power. However, her status as the first non-noble Sun Priest sets her up for an inevitable coup. While Naranpa is honorable in her intentions, her persistent desire to grasp onto the mantle of Sun Priest belies her supposed mission to reform Tova’s religious practices. The dissonance, after a while, becomes less of a character trait and more of an annoyance.

“Black Sun” is ambitious in nature and will remind readers of Tomi Adeyemi’s West African-inspired “Legacy of Orïsha” trilogy. There’s action, political intrigue, and of course PG-13 romance. The inclusion of queer and gender-nonconforming people in Roanhorse’s “Black Sun” is admirable, but needs to be done with more finesse. It feels as though sexual and gender identities were afterthoughts in the formation of the characters to check off a diversity and inclusion requirement.

Previous critiques of Roanhorse’s work have focused on the liberal use of Native cultures in her stories. Some of this shows up in “Black Sun.” There are vague cultural references to the indigenous cultures of Central America and the American Southwest, but there’s nothing concrete to solidly tie certain clans or cities in “Black Sun” to their real-world counterparts. It’s hard to tell if this is a good thing. On the one hand, Roanhorse creates a compelling world in which readers can get lost in the gods and prophecies. But the customs and traditions don’t feel as whole or as fleshed-out as they could be, which is a little disappointing since “Black Sun” is no quick read at almost 800 pages.

While the handling of real-world cultures and sex and gender identities could be executed in a more intentional way, the world of “Black Sun” still alludes to problems of inequality and power imbalances in our own. Xiala, with her Teek identity, represents an experience that feels an awful lot like what it feels to be a person of color, especially in the current cultural climate in the U.S. The firm and unyielding hold of the Sun Priest religion of Tova and its desire to stamp out the “old gods” feels an awful lot like the relationship between secular and indigenous religions. “Black Sun,” despite being set in a fictional world, touches on many of the ills in contemporary society.

Overall, “Black Sun” is the perfect read for speculative fiction lovers looking to expand beyond the very white and Eurocentric fantasy worlds that dominate the genre. While “Black Sun” certainly stumbles at some points, Roanhorse still weaves a story so immersive and intriguing that you’ll find yourself wishing the second book in the trilogy was already here.

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