I just recently came across some information about Roanhorse and her writing, in regards to Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts, that I feel like I need to share here before reviewing Black Sun. I say this because, honestly, my reviews of those two novels in her Sixth World series are incredibly positive ones. And for many reasons I stand by that. But there is a major concern that I had not known about nor recognized that I want address. Roanhorse writes these novels based on Navajo culture and she is not, in fact, of Diné ancestry. It is too easy for non-Native people/readers to lump all Indigenous tribes together, as I did in those reviews, and not consider that Native peoples are not a monolith…and since Roanhorse is not, herself, Navajo, her use of their sacred traditions/beliefs (with some twisting and fantasizing and violation through sharing too much) in this public setting is very much a type of cultural appropriation. I highly encourage any of you that read my reviews of those prior works, and especially if you read those works themselves, to take a look at this article from Saad Bee Hózhǫ́ that articulates the concerns about what Roanhorse did and interrogates the harm and why she chose to write from a Navajo lens rather than her own (Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo). I also want to share this article that sort of presents a number of POVs, including responses from Roanhorse herself, just to add some further context, and because I think some good questions from those different POVs are raised. This is a complex issue, one that I want to make sure I do my level best to recognize and share fully about as I continue to read Roanhorse’s works. Basically, I don’t know if I would say to not read anything based on this, but I do caution against reading without considering it and keeping it in mind. And I also want to include a general apology here from myself, for only now addressing it, as I go into what will be a positive review for my third novel by Roanhorse. I will take this as a reminder to be more purposeful in my research about #ownvoices and authors’ perspectives moving forwards.
“‘Villian,’ he mouthed, liking the sound of it, the weight of the word on his bloodied lip. If protecting his crows make him a villain, then a villain he would be.”
Black Sun is a very different sort of story than the two Sixth World novels, as it leans much more towards traditional fantasy/scifi, based in a completely made-up world, and not a post-apocalyptic, speculative-but-clearly-Earth world. I am going to just copy and paste the Goodreads blurb for this one here, because I think it does a solid job and also, honestly, I am struggling to give it a quick overview in my own words rights now and don’t feel like struggling through that if someone has already done a passable job: “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 (current incarnation: a young woman named Naranpa attempting, with marginal success, to buck religious traditions) 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.”
So, where to start with my thoughts about this epic-ish fantasy? First things first, I have to say that I really enjoyed reading this. There was, as with all fantasy, the requisite “I’m so lost” feelings of the first few chapters as I got used to the world, the language and the characters. This was not necessarily made easier by the fact that there are multiple POVs (one of which is told both in present day and in the past). Each section is marked with dates, of course, but they’re not “typical” days/years, because this is fantasy, so for the first little bit, that definitely didn’t help either. Basically, be prepared to really have to “try” when you first start reading. However, as I settled in and got accustomed to everything, I started to really fall for this book. First, the characters. I always love a rough-talking, aware, smart and competent lady protagonist. And in this case, I was particularly into Xiala, as she was very clearly and naturally bisexual. Woot! (Side note, the overall gender/sexuality rep in this novel was well done: there was a third gender/pronouns used throughout, flouting our ridiculous binary situation, and there were a number of fairly primary characters that showed flexibility of gender and sexual desire, all written casually in stride.) Plus, her “Teek” heritage, that sort of makes her sound like an Indigenous siren, was super cool. If you are a lover of mermaid-fantasy, you will love Xiala. The other primary character that was really interesting was Serapio. I was super into the way his destiny was not fated but created, which is contrary to many chosen-one stories. I was horrified and also totally into the things his mother did to set him down his path towards (potential) god-hood and hopeful vengeance. The other narrators, the Sun Priest Naranpa and Carrion Crow warrior Okoa, were a little less compelling for me. Naranpa seemed uncomfortably naïve and tunnel-visioned and helpless, considering her backstory. And Okoa just wasn’t as central, so I don’t feel like I know enough about him yet. However, the way the novel ends makes it clear his larger role(s) is coming. So I’m excited to see where they both go/how they grow.
I also loved the world itself. It was based on pre-Columbian society/civilization and there were many aspects of that, from the large things, like the conflicting religious beliefs that pit light against dark and form the major conflict of the novel, to the small details, like the use of cacao as currency, that were really well developed. It felt lush and real as I read about it all: the prejudices and ancient feuds and traditions and foods and business. This feeling of depth is definitely enhanced by the little sections at the beginning of each chapter from various cultural works and sayings, etc. I always have a soft spot for those as a device (as you may recall from my reviews of A Memory Called Empire and The Philosopher’s Flight). As complex as the world was though, it was interesting that the plot itself, the political and religious intrigues, felt pretty basic. Not that it wasn’t interesting or unique or compelling, just that…it wasn’t particularly advanced or intricate. There is intrigue of many kinds, but it felt very straightforward (possibly predictable?) to me – I don’t necessarily mean this as a critique, just an observation of how I felt about it. I do want to say here that I did like the way Roanhorse writes in a way that shows an insightful critique/calling-out of the hypocrisy in many belief systems: that each believes they are the “one true” option, that one is divine and all others are blasphemous/witchcraft/fake, when in fact much of it comes down to the perspective and experiences that a person has lived within. With so many POVs in this novel, she was able to show this from many angles and did a nice job with it, especially because our protagonist/chosen one/(anti?)hero is from the “night/dark side of things, that which usually cast as the nameless evil, the antagonist. So that was super cool.
Last, the plot. Wow I was into the story. Roanhorse is so good with pacing and building tension/developing relationships and creating a gripping story. In fact, my only critique here is the cliffhanger ending. This is a very personal preference, but I freaking hate major cliffhangers. It is SO possible to give the reader a reasonably wrapped up ending that still leaves room for more story. When it’s all written well enough (which Roanhorse more than does) I will still pick up the next one because I want to know more about the world and the people. I don’t need an edge-of-your-seat, will-they-live-or-will-they-die ending to make me want to keep reading. A good writer/story does that on its own. I know I may be in the minority here, but it’s a literary pet peeve that just really eats at me. Ugh. So, I’m disappointed by that here. However, I did love that this is the clear start to a story arc that is meant to span multiple installations. I appreciate that Roanhorse recognizes this story, to be told right, needs more time/space, and she hasn’t rushed to get to a “stopping point” here. I just…there is some type of midpoint that I wish had been found.
Overall, this was a great start to a new fantasy series. I loved the pre-Columbian inspired setting, the magics and beliefs and mythologies, the budding relationships that are resolving and the promise for more amongst them all, the backstories of our characters, and was pulled along by great writing and smooth pacing. A great, unique take on a number of common fantasy-genre aspects.
“There was magic in the world, pure and simple, things she didn’t understand. Best get used to it.”
“She comforted herself with the fact that she had not done it for glory, or for power, but for the worst reason of all. Faith. Faith in this place she called her home.”
“‘Vengeance, then. But what is vengeance if not justice?’ / ‘Vengeance can be for spite. It can eat you up inside, take from you everything that makes you happy, makes you human. Look at what it did to your mother. Would justice do that?’”
“Wherever [the gods’] blood was spilled or their bodies lay, great wonders happened. Mountain ranges burst from flat lands, rivers gushed like divine blood, stars were born in cataclysm. And in everything, they left bits of their power – the sun and stars, the creatures of the earth and air, the very rocks and rivers and seas.”
“And Grandfather Crow said to First Woman, tell me your stories so that I might know who you are and what you value. If your stories are of the glory of war, I will know you value power. If your stories are of kinship, I know you value relationship. If your stories are of many children, I know you value legacy. But if your stories are of adaptation and survival, of long memory and revenge, then I will know you are a Crow like me.”