[REVIEW] Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse

Black woman with afro-puff seated, reading a copy of Black Sun

(Find it HERE)

First review of the year! This is the first published novel in the Between Earth and Sky epic, a fantasy series based on the histories and mythologies of pre-settler Meso-America (think Maya, Inca, Aztec, etc). Despite the very unique worldbuilding, in many ways it’s still a very traditional fantasy story. There’s a quest involving a solar eclipse, a vengeful god, and four scrappy twenty-somethings from different walks of life who are all preternaturally gifted in some way. Discovering just what this quest is and how everyone is involved is part of the joy of the book and I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say the stakes are high, the consequences are grim, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next book whenever it comes out. ⠀

That said, if I have one gripe it’s that this book is first in a fantasy series and it knows it. I tend to prefer epics where each installment is a self-contained adventure with both plot and character resolution. Black Sun is very episodic, and at the end of the book I was annoyed at how unfinished the story felt. In 450 pages all that really happens is that our heroes converge on the same spot and then enter transitional holding patterns for the next book. I feel like a lot of words necessarily had to be spent on setting the scene–and to be fair, it’s well-done, spinning a remarkably imaginative landscape complete with giant animals, cliff-dwelling city hierarchies, cacao nib money and richly described pre-Columbian fashion. But the problem with spinning this rich world out of historically neglected cloth is that it didn’t really leave enough room for a complete story, only the promise of one. I’m sure I’ll love the series, the story and it’s characters by the time we get to book three–but as a first installment, this was a bit frustrating. I wanted a complete bite, not a taster. ⠀

Speaking of history–apparently Roanhorse, who is Afro-Pueblo, has come under fire for often using traditions and stories from Indigenous cultures that are not her own as foundational material. (The allegations are apparently quite serious.) I’m not going to speak on it except to say I did look at the cultural details in the book with a much sharper eye due to the criticisms, although to be fair this is not the work that invited those criticisms. In some ways, this debate reminds me a bit of the continuing “should Afro-Brits play Black Americans in Hollywood?” debate. Not the same, I know, but the respective critiques are very reminiscent of each other at times, although the points aimed at Roanhorse seem much sharper. I’ve read a handful of thinkpieces on Roanhorse and I have a hard time accepting the harsher ones for two reasons; one, Roanhorse is an adoptee raised out of the culture of either of her birth parents and has been very transparent about her difficulties connecting with any of her birth family. That complicates her connection to culture and family lineage in a way that I’m not sure is entirely fair to judge on a personal or artistic level. Also, while I think the criticisms of her appropriation of taboo spiritual practices are legit, a lot of the critiques seem to be focused on how Native she is, simply because she’s also Black. To me, this reeks of anti-Blackness, which can be an issue in some American Indigenous communities, and it makes me look at the criticisms much more sharply than Roanhorse’s actual work.

Still, as a fantasy lover, I enjoyed the book. 4 stars and a handful of cacao to Black Sun.

(Happy 2021, fellow readers! Welcome to the new year, and thanks for visiting the blog. FYI–Equal Opportunity Reader has affiliate partnerships with sites like Bookshop, and any links you click and purchases you make will result in a commission being paid. Peace!)

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