2020’s Black Sun is the first volume of Rebecca Roanhorse’s projected secondary-universe fantasy trilogy, Between Earth and Sky.
A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun
The Watchers decimated the Carrion Crow cultists on the Night of Knives, ensuring the ascendency of the Sun Priest: over the Meridian Continent, the city of Tova, and all other religions. A golden age of reason and order has begun, one that will last lifetimes.
Or so the Watchers believe.
As far as the Watchers can tell, their bold gambit has been entirely successful. Newly appointed Sun Priest Naranpa’s main worries concern traditionalists who oppose the reformist Sun Priest. True, the occasional assassination attempts are vexing, but thus far her guards have been able to stop every homicidal cultist. Provided she can navigate the cutthroat politics of her cult, there is no reason why Naranpa cannot look forward to a long career as Sun Priest.
Sailor Xiala’s prospects are far more dismal. She wakes to find herself in a prison cell. She assumes the charges will be minor. She soon discovers she has been way too optimistic. While drunk she violated Kuharan’s draconian moral laws, the punishment for which is death.
Providentially, Lord Balam has need of Xiala’s peculiar skills. He has the wealth and influence to buy her freedom, in return for which she must serve him for twelve years. He tells her that at the end of her indenture, she will be free and quite likely wealthy. Xiala accepts the deal.
Her first task: convey a mysterious passenger to Tova within twenty days. The sensible route from Kuharan to Tova would hug the coast. It would also take much longer than twenty days. The only way to reach the destination in time is to cross the Crescent Sea: doable but dangerous. This is why Balam needed Xiala: not only is she desperate enough to accept the job, but she is a Teek, gifted with certain supernatural powers that might allow her ship to survive where others would not.
Balam provides Xiala with a ship and a crew of acceptable skill (but in Xiala’s eyes, of dubious reliability). Her passenger is the blind, scarred Serapio. He is forbidding of aspect but he otherwise seems amiable enough.
It turns out that there is a curious kinship between Xiala and Serapio. Both have gifts beyond mortal ken. Both are very different from the crew. They become friends at first and allies later, when the weather turns against the ship and the superstitious crew mutinies.
In far off Tova, Sun Priest Naranpa learns that Yatliza Carrion Crow, matron of the surviving Carrion Crows, is dead. Naranpa is surprised to be told that Yatliza appears to have killed herself. She wasn’t assassinated? Others believe that she was; political upheavals follow.
While Naranpa is struggling to restore calm, Serapio is coming. He’s not part of her calculations. He should be, as he has been trained since birth for the confrontation that will follow.
This is book one of an epic fantasy trilogy. Buyers familiar with the limited scope of past epic fantasies might expect a Faux European setting, a plot resembling the first third of a story, and a tome hefty enough to stagger a passerby when hurled with force. None of these are the case.
Roanhorse draws on pre-Columbian New World sources for her secondary universe. My e‑arc didn’t have a map, but imagining the Crescent Sea as the Caribbean, Kuharan as Central America, and Tova as Cahokia seemed to fit the narrative well enough. The only metal named is gold and the trade network resembles the pre-contact Mayan sea trade. The religions draw on New World sources, not Eurasian ones.
While the book ends on a cliff-hanger — at least two, in fact—Black Sun functions as a self-contained story. Readers will not put it down feeling they had purchased only a fragment of a story, with conclusion deferred to an uncertain future.
Finally, despite the large cast and convoluted plot, Black Sun is only 464 pages long. Granted, this is about twice as long as novels were forty years ago but it doesn’t seem heavy enough to raise a small lump when hurled at some hapless wight, let alone knock someone senseless. Incapacitating a passerby with the hardcover would likely require at least seven blows. Compared to volumes of certain other epics which I will not name, Black Sun is a reasonably sized volume that will not strain the wrist (or the reader’s patience).
Roanhorse’s previous books were, of course, quite competent; this novel is even better. Perhaps this is simply that the other works were contemporary fantasy bordering on urban fantasy (not my thing), whereas this is an epic fantasy. I am inclined to think it’s down to a combination of the setting and her characters, in particular Xiala. I am very curious to see where the author takes her series.