Reviews

Review: 5 Reasons to Read Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

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SYNOPSIS:

A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun

In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.

Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.

Crafted with unforgettable characters, Rebecca Roanhorse has created an epic adventure exploring the decadence of power amidst the weight of history and the struggle of individuals swimming against the confines of society and their broken pasts in the most original series debut of the decade.


RATING: ☆★☆★☆

             Alright. Here are 5 reasons why you should read “Black Sun”. Buckle up.

 1. “Black Sun” is a Remarkable Achievement of Storytelling

              “Black Sun” is less a novel, and more an experience. Roanhorse’s storytelling will carry you far from home, sweeping like a sweet wind past jagged mountains, over vast expanses of ocean and cliff cities that weathered the anger of gods. It will pour you into ships with fickle crewmen and ill-lit cells that unlock to new beginnings. It will siphon you away from the dead-end corridors of a loveless house before the walls hem you in, and pin your heart to a small, hushed cabin where a bruised, chafed longing still lingers in the air like lightning… before finally falling still as lake water atop a freestanding mesa where a man opens his eyes and becomes a god.   

              Roanhorse spins a tale that thrums with the heady fervor of an epic but is as intimate as any kiss, told as tightly and tautly as a zither string, with words that feel as smooth as creek stones. The first line catches the eye and holds it: Today he would become a god. What follows is less a prologue, and more a lifting of veils, a ripping of something wide open—like a ribcage—until every word is a wound. It’s disquieting, affecting, wildly devastating. And once you cross that river of ravaged language, there will be no escape, no moment to gasp for breath. You will burn through the pages, and through the hours, until all time and words are spent, and you will ask for more, wishing you could somehow extend the reach of both.

             So, I invite you to step into this glimmering tale of fractious, unyielding gods and revenge that never heals, of forbidden magic and prophecies drenched in blood, of crossing destinies and impossible choices—and let it step into you too.

2. “Black Sun” Subverts the Wearisome Eurocentricity of Epic Fantasy and is Set in a World You’ll Want to Spend Thousands of Pages in

              I must first confess to harboring a lot of resentment towards the persistent myth that Indigenous cultures—before colonizers sat their jaws upon our shores and tucked us neatly and violently beneath their bloodied wing of “civilization”—are primitive, insubstantial as a whisper, and have very little to offer. Because that isn’t true. Our cultures pulse with life, as varied as hues in a rainbow, and our stories are afire with marvel, brighter and far more dazzling than most books—fictitious or otherwise—will lead you to believe.

              Books like “Back Sun” not only disassemble everything we know about epic fantasy and what the genre could be—what it can and should strive for—but they also cast off the lead-lined cloak history wraps around many cultures and peoples, holding them stiff in its arms, unable to move. With this novel, Roanhorse adds to the growing, ferocious list of Indigenous authors who carve new spaces where Indigenous stories can breathe, challenging the world that is hellbent on crushing them down to sleep and darkness—and coming out triumphant.

              The author enthralls so completely with a world that reflects the rich and kaleidoscopic tapestry of the Indigenous cultures of North America. A world that spills off the page like ink, draped with the most intricate weavings from various myths and lore, and bursting with wonderful detail. It felt so real and lived-in too, burning in my mind’s eye as bright as gold under a lamp. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read, and I was wide-eyed and fascinated, wondering at the sheer scope of the author’s imagination. I wanted to stop and linger, even as I kept going, going, going, eager to explore more, as though someone were about to snatch the book from my hands. There are also hints of worldbuilding here and there that reveal just how head-swimmingly ambitious the author’s goal is, and it’s clear that she’s setting up very interesting hooks for future installments. This is the ultimate magic and allure of this novel: it makes you mourn its loss the moment you turn the last page, and wish desperately that you could binge on the entire series right there and then.

             So, if you too are out of charity for epic fantasies that traffic in some fictionalized version of Western Europe, and crave a story that will shatter the real world around you, you do not want to miss this book!

3. “Black Sun” Introduces a Myriad of Characters that Will Burrow Themselves Deep into Your Heart

              The intricate, intertwined elements of Roanhorse’s world are shouldered with effortless grace by strong, coruscating rivers of stories that are played out through the loves and enmities of its colossally vital characters. The characters in “Black Sun” sparkle, all of them wracked with the wound of an insuperable past, carrying more longings and fears than could ever fit inside them—and all of them burrowed deep inside my heart.

             One of the narrators in this many-voiced novel is Naranpa.

              As a child, Naranpa had looked at the horizon—past her home in Coyote’s Maw, the poorest district of Tova, to Otsa where the celestial tower is—and dreamed senselessly, hopelessly, of being a scholar-priest, the way a gutter child might wistfully dream of being queen. Naranpa set that dream in her mind’s eye, and crawled towards it. She moved from Coyote’s Maw to Otsa, and there she rose from her position as a servant in the celestial tower to the highest rank in the priesthood: the Sun Priest.

              The title was draped in words of glory, and there was greatness in it, but try as she might, the Priesthood did not belong to Naranpa twice over: Naranpa was not from a Sky Made clan, and the Priesthood would never let her stop knowing it. Naranpa was also far too idealistic. She had seen the veil lift and the shadow world of the priesthood came into view: the Priesthood, once a great unifying force, now sits over the city on a golden pillow, too high above ground to notice that the tensions between the Sky Made clans are rising from a simmer to a boil.

              A slow, festering wound had opened between the Priesthood and the Carrion Crow clan since the Night of Knives a generation before, when the Carrion Crow bled great gouts of clan members at the hands of the priesthood’s Knives, who descended upon them in slaughter in order to smother their worship of their Crow god. Naranpa saw the rough edges where the Priesthood and the Carrion Crow clan chafed against each other and tried to smooth them, but Naranpa’s only allies were her fellow priests—who allowed their arrogance and disdain for Naranpa’s past to treat her like a helpless puppet to be jerked about by its strings—which is to say she had no ally at all.

              Naranpa’s journey is one of thwarted belonging, of certainties unraveling, of pressure against cracking glass, of fears shrugged off before they can sink in teeth, of unhealed trauma that seeps like poison through generations, and of survival in spite of the odds. I rooted for Naranpa so feverishly—this outsider who was treated like someone to be tolerated and disdained and was so awfully in over her head, but who always held her ground, straight as a flame, refusing to exist as just one identical cog swapped out for another to keep the Priesthood’s machinery running the exact same way it had for years.

              The first thread of the story, however, begins not with Naranpa, but with Serapio.

              Vengeance is a lesson Serapio had learned early and well. The Night of Knives had filled Serapio’s mother—one of the few Carrion Crow survivors—with a grief so raw and so unfathomable it cast a long shadow. Serapio was born into the darkness that shadow left behind. When Serapio was twelve, his mother stitched his eyes shut under a swallowed sun to seal in the Crow god’s power, and for years after that, he was as molten glass in her co-conspirators hands’, to be spun into the god-vessel shape they wanted. At twenty-two, Serapio now journeys to the holy city of Tova, so that during the Convergence—when the earth, sun, and moon are aligned—he will open his eyes once again, and become a god.

              Serapio’s story carved so deep into my heart. Serapio was a weapon honed to a hair’s edge. A vessel for a wrathful god. A nightmare that had crawled out of myth and come for the Priest Sun and the Watchers, thrumming with dark fervor: cloaked in black robes, eyes covered with bandages, teeth stained red, and crows circling overhead like a threatening tide of darkness. He was a reckoning. But there are gaps in Serapio’s character where humanity sneaks in and illuminates his softer features, a fragility that bleeds longing from every word, every gesture—and it snagged so horribly at me.

              This is one of the things “Black Sun” does so well: it resists easy answers, offering only questions to examine like a gem, turning its facets to catch the light, and it’s that tension that elevates the characters to gripping levels of insight and complexity and brings the reader round to a position of empathy. The novel also interrogates what it means to be a “hero” or a “villain”, constantly wrestling with the definitions of “a good person” vs “a bad person” vs “a monster”, without ever shying away from the darker aspects of humanity.

              Serapio wore his duty as a vessel for the crow god like a bruise, something that had to be borne. But he was not some unrepentant monster, lashing out wildly: violence to Serapio was a tool, one that he disciplined within an inch of its life and used only to fulfill a worthy purpose. But he was also much more than that. We see Serapio beyond his role as a divine purpose made flesh. We see the burden of divinity sitting atop the shoulders of a man hiding a boy who has had to grow up far too fast, fed and nurtured on darker things—fury, grief, and vengeance. A man who was curious, intense, awkward, and so hauntingly lonely. A man who feared he’d die just as he existed: belonging nowhere. And it’s hard not to root for that man when all the modest desires he’d kept firmly buried—sublimated and denied in favor of silent yearning—begin to worm their way up his chest, to spill onto the page. It’s harder still not to want to put your body between him and every single other character in grieved, mulish protectiveness, which is exactly how I felt.

              Throughout the story, we also hear from Xiala. Xiala is a captain and mermaid who had been drifting in the world like an untethered boat in the mercy of the ocean ever since she’d been banished by her aunt and mother from their Teek clan—a mysterious female-only clan who live on a mythical island unreachable by men and whose magical Song can command churning, wrathful seas into stillness. After a disastrous outing with a merchant lord lands Xiala first in a bar, then in the arms of a beautiful woman, and eventually in a jail cell, Xiala is ready to swear off all merchant lords and their damnable jobs. But when freedom stands unshackled in the light of another merchant lord’s offer, Xiala feels its lure like a hook behind her heart: escort a “harmless” man to Tova in twenty days upon a ship, and earn a fortune big enough to tide her over for the foreseeable future.

              To Xiala’s knowledge, however, “usually when someone describes a man as harmless, he ends up being a villain,” and the man she meets indeed looks every bit a villain. But curiosity pulls at Xiala like the tide, however she swims against it. And something else too—something about Serapio that feels so familiar, like the notes of a song heard from behind a closed door. Something Xiala knew she needed to cup in her palms to keep it safe, or the wind might blow it away. 

              I gulped down Xiala and Serapio’s moments together the way a whirlpool sucks down waves. Something seems to fall away from both of them when they’re together; the lies they told themselves and the truths they kept from everyone else disintegrating like wet sheets of paper in the other’s presence. I love how they never hid their pain from each other, and never had the pride to try. It came as no surprise to me that we first learn about Xiala’s past in her fragile, late-night conversations with Serapio, and it’s there too where we get a real glimpse at the dread and fear that beats like crow-wings in the place behind Serapio’s sternum where all the fears and longings he’d kept are clawing to get free. Those tremulous moments when they would both sit still, their shoulders pressed together like pages, enjoying a quiet acknowledgment of their private torments and multitudes of longings were the filter of colors that filled every shadow in their respective stories.

              The story baton also passes seamlessly to other narrators who dip in and out of the tale like hummingbirds, and I savored each character’s turn in the spotlight even as I dearly missed the others. In many senses, each of these characters is dealing, in different ways, with being an outsider in a land that seems to be embracing them with an arm, and pushing them away with the other. Despite standing on opposite sides of what seems to be a gaping ravine, they all have far more in common with each other than even they know (which is all the more reason for me to need the sequel like an ember needs air!)

4. “Black Sun” Raises Questions that Will Dog Your Heels Long After You Turn the Last Page

                  The sheer thematic force of “Black Sun” hits you like a gravity well, kicking up a storm in your mind that will keep raging long after the story is over. I already touched upon many of the themes “Black Sun” interrogates in the above section, but other questions deftly raised in the novel feel just as urgent—and just as timeless.

              “Black Sun” is a story about generational trauma, and hurts that cannot be healed on their own even if you give them enough time. The novel heartbreakingly demonstrates how acts of violence and brutality—even those distant in time and geography—do not recede into the past like a tide; instead, they leave behind an unmistakable indentation, an irreversible shift with consequences that will reverberate for a very long time. Our histories, our memories persist. They grow inside us like seeds, deepening their roots in our soul, and loop around our communities like an insurmountable fence, casting a dark shadow over our lives and relationships. History might be easier to look at when evidence of its violence wilt away, but it never lessens the ache of loss and grief—and anger.

              “Black Sun” is a story about injustices that turn into cherished grudges, lands full of seething pain and wrath, and people who grow up with blades in their hearts. It’s a bitter tale of vengeance: the breathless, righteous kind that goes back before you, but which you inherit with all else that you inherit. And it touched a very tender spot within me—war is something many of us inherit, and it becomes an inextricable part of who we are, a raw ache sitting in our stomach like a thorn deep in a festering wound, the stinging source of our rage against a world that had wronged us for so long, and continues to do so. This kind of war, the novel hauntingly illustrates, never ends; it ripples like wind over grass, on and on and on, and we splinter ourselves on it.

5. It’s Queer as Hell, Baby 🏳️‍🌈

              One of the reasons I love Black Sun so dearly—besides all of the above—is how explicitly and unquestionably and unrepentantly queer the characters are.

             Queerness permeates the novel but it is not at all plot-bearing, and it flooded my heart with so much joy: characters are introduced as trans, non-binary, and/or bisexual without fanfare, and multiple characters use neo-pronouns. I genuinely cannot overstate how wonderful and meaningful it is to read a story where people like me can just exist, to step into a world where being yourself isn’t akin to taking hold of a mountain. Because as much as I love and relish stories that explore the cultural history and struggles of queer people, there is an ineffable kind of catharsis stored in stories where each character’s gender and sexual identity is rendered in the same assured, unfaltering prose as the rest of the book. That nonchalant, fleeting mention—as though the fact was of no more consequence than a broken lamplight—that feels more validating than anything else. That is precisely what Black Sun offers—and I adore it for it.


Black Sun” is everything I love in fantasy, all neatly knotted up in a bound bundle of dead tree. And if you have yet to read, stop being your own worse enemy, and pick up a copy ASAP. Just trust me.


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