Thanks to the previous two books I read by Rebecca Roanhorse, both part of her Sixth World series, I had come to expect a good, absorbing story from her newest work, but Black Sun proved to be so much more than I had anticipated and it took me completely by surprise. An enthralling, delightful surprise. Set in a world that takes inspiration from pre-colombian cultures and then adds many original details, combining them into a fascinating, complex background, Black Sun follows the journey of four main characters destined to converge in the city of Tova on a very special day, as yearly festivities and an ominous prophecy will merge with unpredictable results.
Xiala is a mercenary sea captain and a Teek, which means she comes from a matriarchal seafaring society from which she was exiled after a tragic event: imprisoned after a violent altercation with her former employer and a drunken night on the town, she is released after accepting to transport a young man to the city of Tova in time for Convergence, the winter solstice that this year will also see the alignment of Earth, Sun and Moon. The passenger is Serapio, molded from infancy to be the vessel of a vengeful god and for this reason deeply scarred and blinded – but not helpless, not at all. Naranpa is the highest priest in the city of Tova, but her role is in constant jeopardy because of the inner political maneuvers inside the priesthood, and their inability to accept her humble origins. And then there is Okoa, son of the Carrion Crow clan’s matron: back in Tova from the military academy, he finds himself dealing with family problems and uneasy alliances.
The novel unfolds through time jumps that don’t feel at all confusing as they are wielded with great skill and keep adding new information to the very complex tapestry that is this story: seeing this world through the different points of view also confers great depth to it and its history, turning it into a vivid, three-dimensional creation that is very easy to slip into, just as it’s difficult to move out of, because it tends to entangle you into its awesome complexity. Moreover, the time jumps keep enhancing the sense of impending doom that becomes more and more palpable as the day of Convergence draws near.
The setting is indeed fascinating, not just because of the different locations visited as the characters engage in their travels, but because it’s created through a blend of vivid descriptions and fascinating legends that shape the world into something tangible and vibrant, gifted with a definite cinematic quality. If this is true for all descriptions in the novel, it is even more so where the city of Tova is concerned: a place of high peaks and deep chasms spanned by aerial bridges that can give you vertigo by proxy, a city teeming with life and at the same time rife with the danger of death, a death that can come through accidents – like slipping down an icy bridge into a bottomless ravine – or through malice – like being killed by a hired assassin or the member of a rival clan. There is a definite sense of urgency in Tovan day-to-day activities, be they the comfortable kind enjoyed by the elite or the hand-to-mouth existence of the dwellers in the Maw, the lowest level of the city where poverty, crime and the offer of illicit pleasures are a way of life. It does not take long for the reader to perceive that Tova is like a pressure cooker ready to explode, that social strain and the priesthood’s iron rule and inner conflicts, together with never-ending clan rivalries, are bringing that pressure to the boiling point: add to that the long-held thirst for revenge harbored by Carrion Crow for the Night of Knives, when the priesthood tried to exterminate the clan, and you know it’s all fated to end in blood.
In this tense but intriguing situation the characters shine and add a further level of allure to the story, even though Okoa is mostly kept on the sidelines in favor of the other three, with some hope he will play a bigger role as the story moves forward. Naranpa is the one who required more time for me to truly appreciate her, but I guess it was mostly because I was still orienting myself in this world: once I got to know her better I could only admire her tenacity in clinging to her exalted post, despite her own self-doubts and the insecurities carried over from an impoverished childhood. Nara, as she’s often called, does not care so much for power in itself or for politics, but rather for the good of the city: she understands that to bring peace and prosperity to Tova things have to change, and for that she is challenged every step of the way by her fellow priests, when she is not actually threatened with death. Nara’s journey throughout Black Sun is a hard one, and while many times I felt frustrated in witnessing the obstacles she had to face, I cannot wait to see what Rebecca Roanhorse has in store for her along the way.
If Nara is an outsider with little chances of ever blending in, Xiala and Serapio are just as isolated, even though in different ways. I liked Xiala from the very beginning: her personality is a mix of defiance and vulnerability, accentuated by the way people relate to her as a Teek, a woman whose mysterious Song can placate stormy waters, call favorable winds and keep at bay dangerous creatures. For this reason Teeks are highly sought after, but at the same time despised and feared, and even killed for their precious bones gifted with magical properties: all this comes to the fore in the course of the sea voyage to Tova, when Xiala shows a very peculiar talent and the crew mutinies out of fear. It’s therefore not surprising when she forms a bond with Serapio, an outcast like herself, and that they can understand each other on a deeper level, as shown by the exchange of stories and myths during the long nights over the sea.
Serapio might very well be the central character here, a sort of anti-hero who is at the same time powerful and vulnerable: shaped from childhood to be an instrument of vengeance, leading a loveless life as he was being molded into the desired weapon, he nonetheless shows a form of quiet humanity, a sort of sad gentleness that managed to break my heart, particularly when he contemplates what will be his ultimate destiny,
[he] hoped that the pain would not be too great. He had made friends with it, yes, but it was a wary friendship.
a destiny he did not choose himself but at the same time one he has accepted as the only possible one. The author describes his journey in such a way that even as he fulfills his preordained role in a frenzied dance of violence and blood I could not help myself and felt only pity for him.
When all is said and done, Black Sun will certainly attract you because of the exotic background that sets it apart from the usual epic fantasy offerings, but it’s through the strength and human depth of its characters that it will keep you coming back for more.