2021 Hugo Award Review: Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Detail from the cover of the audiobook edition of Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. Shows the title alongside a stylised iamge combining the wings of a crow with the lower half of a person's face.

Black Sun’s prologue introduces us to Serapio, a boy who is groomed by his mother to become the avatar of a Crow God — a process that entails being ritually blinded. All of this is to prepare him for a specific date in the future: the day of Convergence, when the sun shall turn black and a new era will be ushered in.

A good work of epic fantasy is as refreshing as a long dip in a deep, warm, foamy bath. It is an opportunity for the reader to shut out their workaday world and be left alone with their imaginations. This is not to say that such fantasy is simple: when done well it is complex, just as the chemical compounds that go into a bottle of bubble-bath are complex. The effect, however, can be blissfully simple. The reader has no obligation to memorise vast records of a fictitious land, nor to unpack reams of allegories; all they need to do is to lie back, shut out their surroundings and enjoy the warmth. There is, of course, poorly-done epic fantasy, and reading it is akin to taking a dip in someone else’s lukewarm bathwater; but this serves to make it all the more refreshing when the genre is done right.

With Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse conjures up a beguiling new world of fantasy, and invites us to a setting rich with interclan conflict, priestly intrigue and magical mystery.

Cover of Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

As is often the case with successful epics, the novel uses a small-scale narrative to ease us in. The main story begins ten years after the time of the prologue, with Serapio now an adult. A woman named Xiala is hired for the specific task of transporting him by ship, a job she accepts because the only other option is facing punishment for a bout of drunken adultery. Her hedonistic life is given a drastic shake-up when she finds herself traversing treacherous waters with a crew that does not entirely trust her.

The story of Xiala and Serapio is just one of the plot threads running through Black Sun. At the city of Tova (Serapio’s ultimate destination) Sun Priest Naranpa desires for her priestly caste to have a greater role in public life: “I want to show them we are not some shriveled-up old penitents in a tower, but a living breathing part of this city. That we are accessible. That we care.” This puts her into conflict with the rest of the priesthood, which sees her social reformation as excessively radical.

This conflict appears to have turned violent when Naranpa becomes the target of an attempted assassination. Evidence suggests that the attacker belonged to a clan that is hostile to the priesthood as a whole — but could it have been a false flag attack? Or perhaps a misinterpreted accident? We are able to see the truth behind the incident in the chapters following the accused assassin, Okoa — who turns out to be the story’s fourth point-of-view character, after Serapio, Xiala and Naranpa.

All of this intrigue develops against a richly-textured backdrop. The city of Tova has four clans, each with a symbolic animal: the Golden Eagle, the Water Strider, the Winged Serpent and the Carrion Crow, the last of which includes Serapio. A generation before the main events of the story, the priesthood that Naranpa is presently trying to reform carried out the Night of Knives, when hundreds of Carion Crow clan members were killed for their perceived heresy. As the novel unfolds, we learn of how this atrocity impacted Serapio’s childhood — and how his development was guided in response to the slayings.

The Crow clan are not the only persecuted people in Black Sun. Xiala is a Teek, a member of a mermaid-like race whose existence is surrounded in superstition. The bones of Teek are routinely taken as good-luck charms: she herself is missing part of one finger because of this superstition. Teek also have the ability to influence the sea through song; this trait gets Xiala her job as a sailor, but also leads to her being blamed (like the Ancient Mariner) by the crew for misfortune. She does at least find solidarity with Serapio: both existing on the margins, his affinity for the sky complementing her kinship with the sea.
Epic fantasy strives for a sense of mythic timelessness, but it will inevitably reflect the culture in which it was written. In Black Sun we find a deeply contemporary commitment to LGBT representation: Xiala is pansexual, “never shy about loving men or women or any other gender”, a trait that is taken for granted and lent less significance than her membership of the Teek race. Naranpa’s chapters, meanwhile, include the character of Iktan, Iktan, a non-binary priest with whom Naranpa shares a somewhat anxious friendship (“She had a fondness for xir, and she always would, but she had to admit xe was also very much a killer with a killer’s emotional aptitude, and that she found disquieting”).

On a deeper level, we have the story’s resolutely non-European setting. Black Sun belongs to a movement in modern fantasy that breaks away from medieval Europe as a default background, with Roanhorse taking the pre-Columbian Americas as a source of inspiration. The Mayans are a particularly significant reference point, although (such is the liberty afforded to a fantasy writer_) Roanhorse is unafraid to reach further afield, even stretching into the Pacific to draw upon Polynesian sailing methods. All of this provides her with plenty of historical detail to work with in terms of astronomy, seafaring, social structure and other areas that contribute to a fleshed-out secondary world. All of this serves to offer a breath of fresh air in the fantasy landscape, and consciously so, as the author states at the end of the book:

I’ve always wanted to write an epic fantasy with the scope, scale, magic, and intrigue I found in my favorites of the genre and set it in a fictional secondary world inspired by the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas. So much of epic fantasy is set in analogs of western Europe that I think most readers believe that all fantasy must be set in a fake England in order to even be considered epic. Happily there seem to be more and more epics set in secondary worlds influenced by various cultures in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, but it still seems incredibly rare to find a fantasy inspired by the Americas.

I think part of the reason is the persistent myth that the indigenous cultures pre-conquest were primitive and had little to offer, when the opposite is true. Here were master architects who built massive pyramids that rivaled anything in Egypt and created citywide sewer systems when London was still tossing its waste in the streets. Here they built high-rises that housed thousands. Here they tracked the equinox, the solstice, and the movement of the heavens with stunning accuracy. They wove cotton and traded turquoise and shell and feathers and cacao along trade routes that stretched across continents. They lived and laughed and loved. They were, in a word, epic.

Certain Mesoamerican societies placed great stock on the concept of cyclical history, as evidenced by the Aztec belief in the Five Suns and the Mayan concept of world ages. These views of the world in terms of death and rebirth is translated into an apocalyptic undercurrent that runs through Black Sun. The entire structure of the novel is built around the concept of the Convergence — the spiritually-significant eclipse and all that comes with it Each chapter opens with a date in relation to the Convergence, counting down the days (or years, in the case of the flashback chapters set during Serapio’s youth) until the fated day of the black sun.

Serapio is central to the impending Convergence: he fits the familiar epic fantasy character type of the Chosen One, although in line with its shaking-off of cliches, Black Sun acknowledges that a Chosen One is not necessarily a de facto good guy. For much of the story Serapio is an ambiguous figure, his gifts — even when used to protect his companion Xiala — having an ominous aspect:

She didn’t know how long it had lasted when the screaming finally stopped. She thought perhaps she had lost consciousness for a while, her body’s small mercy granted to her to survive the whirlwind of death. Her lids fluttered open.

Serapio hadn’t moved. His robe flared around him like black wings, and the crows he had called, from where she couldn’t fathom, came to him as if to their master. They flowed around his form in a tight spiral, round and round, until they broke and surged upward. They seemed to shatter across the sky in bands of shadow, radiating from his body like the feathered rays of a black sun.

Serapio’s face was radiant, caught in ecstasy, his broad smile showing teeth red enough to match the blood that soaked the deck. She wanted to say something, call to him. But her throat didn’t want to work. He seemed to sense her there, reaching for him. When he spoke, his voice was the sound of a thousand beating wings.

When dealing with cycles of history, any apocalypse is an opportunity for a new beginning. Black Sun follows the tradition of epic fantasy by promising us return trips to its world, as it is billed as the first novel in a series. Before long, it will be time for us to lie back for another dip in that warm, clear water.

Series Navigation<< 2021 Hugo Award Review: The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin2021 Hugo Award Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke >>
Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.

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