Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Between Earth and Sky, Book 1

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (Between Earth and Sky, Book 1)

The book is epic in scope with a broad cast and a few incidental points of view (POV). The cast includes everything from a world governing body that has lost its relevance, the vessel for a reborn god, and a foul-mouthed captain from a people of myth. I could have become lost in all the names and different circumstances, but the characters are distinct and the characterization rich. Even with chapters between mentions, it took little to bring me back to knowing who held the POV.

Using multiple POVs in the same group of characters helped with this by reducing the stretch of time without a mention, and through developing an internal and external understanding of the people key to the story. These characters are far from cutouts or straight forward. Nor have their lives left them unscarred physically or psychologically. They are as likely to find their contradictions puzzling as the reader…or maybe more so because we know situations are rarely simple.

The same is true of the cultures and places. This is not a single nation with a single culture. Nor are the various cultures united under a single worship or practice. Instead, we have a rocky agreement based on an ancient treaty to hold all these cultures equal beneath the guidance of the Sun Priests. The world is a vivid mix of experience and myth. We learn through the eyes of sailors, priests, and fanatics among others, though that turn of phrase is too limiting as one character is blind.

The conflicts are against society and history as much as individuals. Betrayal and sabotage are often grounded in birthplace or events two generations before. Cruel or kind people exist, but most are a blend of these states, showing position and history fail to produce a perfect or corrupt person consistently. This is not a book for those seeking simple answers or splits between good and evil. Both violence and rough language exist on the page, along with an intimate scene, but these elements reveal the characters and their philosophies in important ways.

The book throws you into the thick stew of a fantasy world drawn from pre-conquered indigenous cultures in what we now call the Americas. People and cultures connect through areas of influence or control, and through the trade moving between the locations by canoes, barges, and presumably, over land. The author doesn’t hold to what we have discovered of the histories, though. She uses them as a starting point to create a world of her own populated by old and new gods; fantastical beasts large enough to bear a human or two whether crow, eagle, flying serpent, or water bug; and myths that might have more truth to them than anyone in the story knew.

Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a historical or religious text belonging to this world and offering the reader insights. These headers also provide a date and timeframe that’s crucial to tracking the story. The novel is not chronological, or even set in a current time with flashbacks to a previous one. Instead, it combines flashbacks, flash forwards, and time moving up to meet the future we have seen.

Normally, this lack of chronological storytelling would have bugged me, but it’s more a story outside of the strict limitations of time than not. I was grateful to realize the header held the necessary grounding, however. The book’s epic not only in scope but in timeframe. It covers the lifetime of gods along with that of humans, and yet everything works and makes sense in context.

The novel has fascinating cultural beats, something I enjoy, yet they can sometimes slow the story down. I noticed a few slower spots in the beginning as we’re getting to know the people and places, but the story moved quickly overall. Switching between the various characters helped this. The captain offered a good contrast to the Sun Priest, for example, until that part of the tale got rolling. By the end, I couldn’t say which of them I preferred.

Black Sun speaks to my craving for sociological speculative fiction. It draws on North, South, and Central American ancient indigenous societies whose sophistication is often ignored whether the Polynesian navigational skills or the buildings found in Inca or Aztec ruins. Then add in complex characters who come to life in their contradictions. Yes, there are dark moments, but I don’t think that’s the heart of this narrative. There’s a lot of meat on these bones, and I look forward to the next book in the series.

P.S. I received this Advanced Reader Copy from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

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