"There will always be those who urge you to war. Interrogate their objective. If you find that it is peace, then consider war as a means to an end; if their end is only more war, send them away."
Rebecca Roanhorse's Black Sun is an intricate epic fantasy novel based on indigenous "civilizations of the pre-Columbian Americas." As the first book in the Between Earth and Sky series, Black Sun artfully tells a fulfilling story while also leaving some details undone to set the stage for following books.
Bear with me because there's a lot of detail but I promise in the book it makes sense!
The book is centered in Tova, a "holy city" ruled by four priests: (1) Naranpa - the Sun Priest and the most important one; (2) Iktan - the Priest of Knives who handles security, war, and protection; (3) Haisan - the Priest of Records; and (4) Abah - the Priest of Succor, or Healing; think Medicine, Wellness.
Previously the priesthood held a lot of power but over time they have become symbolic figureheads who read the stars occasionally and collect taxes from people. This is something Naranpa the Sun Priest wants to change.
In the book, Naranpa is sort of a wildcard, radical figure. She didn't come from any of the major families in Tova, but instead came from The Maw, which is seen as a poorer, subordinate part of Tova. She also wants the priesthood to reclaim some of their power back and fix relations with the clans of Tova.
Also in Tova, there are four powerful clans: (1) Carrion Crow, (2) Water Strider, (3) Golden Eagle, and (4) Winged Serpent. formerly at odds with each other, the Treaty of Hokaia joined them under the rule of the priesthood. This kinda reminded me of Marvel's Black Panther - if you remember in the movie, the tribes were at odds with each other before they agreed to live under one rule.
But even when groups of people form treaties, sometimes residue of resentment remains. The one clan to keep an eye on is Carrion Crow, which is the clan that probably feels the most disgruntled at the institution of the priesthood. This due to the "Night of Knives," when the priesthood disproportionately attacked Carrion Crow and killed generations of their people.
Though the priesthood now believes Carrion Crow to be subdued, a cult in Carrion Crow is growing and they believe a “crow god” will return to avenge the Night of Knives by killing the Sun Priest. Within the clan, some people think this is going to happen, while others don't but ignore their presence.
Enters Serapio, born in a faraway town called Obregi to an Obregi dad and a Carrion Crow mother who escaped Tova. As a result of a series of rituals, his mother cultivates Serapio's destiny by reincarnating the crow god in him. During the next solstice, when the sun is at its weakest, he is to return to Tova as the crow god and kill the priesthood but especially Sun Priest.
There’s so much more to this book but I will keep some things to myself as to not ruin the entire book.
One thing that makes Roanhorse’s Black Sun is the normalization of variant gender-neutral pronouns and identities. Never have I read an epic fantasy, or any book, where the less common pronouns “xir/xe” is used. It really speaks to how gender as we understand it now doesn’t have to be this way, nor was it always.
Another thing I loved was how consistent everything was despite the shifts in voices and time. Generally, I don’t love reading books with too many characters because it is hard to follow motivations, thoughts, and paths. But somehow, even though this book shifted between times and characters, each character was big enough and fleshed out enough that you could remember them if you saw them again.
I loved reading this book and would recommend to anyone who has been out of the Fantasy genre for a bit. It's that good to pull you in regardless of your reading tastes. And I’m actively waiting her next book in the series.
And as always, we need to do a better job of reading and support Indigenous authors.
A couple of final things:
Roanhorse is often celebrated as the modern Indigenous writer to read. But it's important to note that Indigeneity, much like Blackness, is not monolithic. There are cultural divisions even within one “race” of people.
Because I know too many people who love to cosplay as Indigenous, I did some research to make sure this wasn't another "American Dirt" situation. The results are complicated. For the most part, Rebecca Roanhorse has been celebrated as an Indigenous speculative fiction writer. But there are Native American people who have criticized her for cultural appropriation.
Roanhorse has been criticized for pulling from and misrepresenting the Diné Navajo Nation (see Vulture article: https://www.vulture.com/article/rebecca-roanhorse-black-sun-profile.html). In another article, I saw other critics felt she should have pulled from her own Ohkay Owingeh tribe.
In my mind, it's clear Roanhorse is not white and is Indigenous. As she has shared, she has Indigenous features and has been racially targeted for them. It's not my place to say much else.
But I think the conversation is an interesting one, even for Asian and Black writers. Does being a member of a race permit you to write about all the cultures within that race?