Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Roanhorse, Black Sun (2021)

Rebecca Roanhorse, Black Sun. Solaris Press (UK edition), 2021. Pp 436. ISBN 978-1-78108-947-7. £8.99.

Reviewed by Cait Coker

Rebecca Roanhorse’s novel Black Sun is an epic fantasy drawing on the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas for its world-building, social structures, mythos, and terminology. Like other fantasies that draw on history at a slant, it makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar. It is a true masterpiece of suspense and storytelling, and is simply the best new novel I’ve read in ages. Roanhorse structures the story in shifting times, and across several characters, leading up to the Winter Solstice and a celestial convergence leading to a solar eclipse that creates the titular Black Sun. The story moves forwards, backwards, and forwards again to illuminate what various characters know and when they know it, and providing new readings for different characters. If this novel were a film we would think of it as an homage to Tarantino; in the context of this story, in which scenes are placed against quoted texts, it is more like if Frank Herbert’s Dune series had dialed the anti-imperialist message all the way up.

A line from a scene early in the book, repeated in the blurb on the back, tells that ‘when a man is described as “harmless,” he usually ends up being a villain.’ This simple quote already plays with our expectations as readers, as it describes one of the protagonists, Serapio. Serapio is a mysterious and somewhat threatening figure to other characters in the book: blind and disfigured, dressed all in black. In the chapters told from his point of view, he is very different—an abused and neglected child who has had to grow up much too quickly. He can communicate with and see through the eyes of crows, an ability that has been done elsewhere and could have been hackneyed cliché, and yet in this universe feels completely organic and natural. As one of the two primary characters—the other being Xiala, a woman boat captain with her own mystical abilities—he provides much of the plot’s impetus with his need to travel to the city of Tova for the solstice. Serapio is also a charming and empathetic character whose Tragic Backstory™ could have been a real hindrance for the reader. Instead, Roanhorse matter-of-factly presents a narrative of horrifying abuse and makes it actually horrifying, rather than an exercise in pornographic horror that other novelists, such as Paolo Baciagalupi, have been known to indulge in.

Xiala, on the other hand, has the ghost of her own history, as a member of a marginalized culture, the Teek, that is simultaneously admired and abused. In some ways, her narrative reminded me of elements from N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy. Xiala can Sing Songs that, variously, can psychically influence people as well as, in a limited fashion, manipulate weather and the sea. Her abilities make her, alternately, valuable as a boat captain, and vulnerable to make crew members see her as unnatural. Roanhorse writes about the intersections of Xiala’s identity as a Teek, as a woman in a largely misogynist society (versus the comparatively freer culture in a different part of the continent), and as an open bisexual, that deftly draws a picture of everyday cultural struggles in both the real and fantastical worlds. (I’ll also note here that the advanced reader copy that I received did not contain maps, but the released book does have them so that readers can understand the geography referenced.)

There are two other characters that provide point of views for the narrative. Naranpa is a Sun Priest who has climbed the social ladder from the poorest region of Tova to the highest rank in the city’s religious order. Upward mobility is presented as a complex thing both personally and culturally; her family feels abandoned and her brother in particular despises her for perceived betrayal, while the rest of the priesthood is torn by the politics of a designated leader from the lower classes (and this goes about as well as you would think). Finally, Okoa is the son of a murdered clan leader who must balance the responsibilities of state, clan, and family—in that order—to investigate the crime and receive a semblance of justice. Okoa is the character most neglected by this first volume in a planned trilogy, and it will be interesting to see how his role expands later on.

In her notes in the back of the book, Roanhorse presents a brief bibliography of her research with some commentary. She notes in particular that she was inspired by the city of Cahokia, which exists today as a complex of some eighty mounds in southern Illinois, and that much of that research will be seen more fully in the next volume. Since I personally have been long-fascinated with Cahokia (it is nearby, and at its apex would have been significantly greater in size and complexity than the contemporaneous European city of London), I am eager to read more and see what happens next.

Finally, Roanhorse dedicates the book “For that kid in Texas who always dreamed in epic.” Roanhorse grew up in that state, so these words have a particular meaning for a particular audience. (I myself lived in Texas for a number of years as an adult.) Texas is the second-largest state in America, where many of the country’s cultural divides are thrown into sharp relief: it contains some of the wealthiest and the poorest citizens in the country, its gerrymandering system has effectively quashed democracy for decades, and as recent news items have demonstrated, its governing and regulatory mechanisms to provide and protect people are dysfunctional. Nonetheless, the members of minority communities in the state, including people of color, LGBTQ+, and indigenous people have long been loud and proud. To be a reader of fantasy in Texas is to be aware of one’s cultural stakes and, frequently, vocal in calls for justice. In addressing those readers, Roanhorse is not just talking back to her younger self, but to those readers who are actively fighting for a better world both in the science fiction and fantasy community and in broader politics.

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