I received a stack of four library books this last week delivered to my door by my local library, so I’ll review my favorites in the next couple of weeks if I am able to get to them all.
And that brings me to a point I wanted to make about book reviews in my blog this year, if you’ll indulge a tangent. My goal this year is to read 50 books. Last year I read 30. Part of the reason why I review books is to motivate me to keep up with my reading. So this hopefully will be the first of a few reviews in 2021.
My review policy is this: I don’t accept solicitations to review books (avoid the DM! Don’t do it! Just don’t!). I don’t like leaving harsh, negative reviews, so I will DNF a book if I absolutely hate it; life is too short to read books that you don’t like. I review books I feel average about on my Goodreads, and explain some pros and cons about the book. If I can recommend the book, I post it in my blog. Sometimes I just leave a star rating, because that still helps authors in the Amazon algorithm.
The long and short of it is this – reviews should be fun; writing them shouldn’t feel like a job or an obligation. As long as they are fun to write, I keep writing them. I don’t do it to help authors with advertisement and promotion (if you want that, hire me! I’m good at marketing…) or even to network; I do it because I love books and I want to share my love of reading, which was my self-soothing activity during a very turbulent year last year. I hope to read a few more indies and books by POC and LGBTQ authors this year, and to keep up with my ARCs from Netgalley.
Anyway, back to this particular review. This book is an absolute gem, my first book that I finished reading in the brand-new year. It’s called “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse, Book One of the Between Earth and Sky Trilogy. Let’s start with the basics – even though I only had a library book, the hardback was simply gorgeous. The cover art was beautiful; even the font and graphic design were attractive. I kept reading it marveling at both the excellent design and the writing style. I would buy that hardback in a heartbeat. And the maps were drawn by Roanhorse’s daughter, which is pretty special.
Don’t judge a book by its cover, but this book was the whole package. I fully admit I have not read a whole lot of fantasy until recently because it is, frankly, not my favorite genre. Magic systems feel like a “And it was all a dream” plot device to me at times, like cheating; I’ve always preferred science fiction and its established boundaries. What’s more, so much of fantasy is inspired by white, cis, and heteronormative medieval Europe. Women are always queens and princesses; and there is always a dragon. Tolkein was amazing, don’t get me wrong; but how many retellings can there be of Lord of The Rings? Apparently an infinite number. It’s stale, to me, by and large. I’m not trying to judge anyone for liking this stuff, because you’re not alone. It seems unfailingly popular. I’m the weirdo for not being a super-fan; you can judge me all you want.
I want something different, though, than the usual fake Western European fare. This book provided that. It was like a breath of fresh air on every page; I greedily read this one, soaking up the newness of it, the originality. Roanhorse wanted to write an epic fantasy and get taken seriously as an epic fantasy author writing something other than white Western Europe. Well, mission accomplished. I respect everything this book has to offer – her worldbuilding, her characters, her mythos, her magic system, her writing style. The scope of this project is just incredible.
This is epic fantasy for a new generation. The world Roanhorse built is inspired by the cultures of the pre-Columbian Americas, taking the idea that indigenous culture is often disrespected as being lesser than or diminished compared to post-colonial technology, and giving respect and reverence to the intelligence and technology of indigenous cultures. But this is not historical fiction; this is not saying, “What if indigenous cultures were the dominate culture instead of white colonialists?” This is pure fantasy, and completely creative. This is a world unto itself. This is not Victorian England; this is another continent, portrayed with warmth and complexity. This book was meticulously researched and it showed in the details of these blended cultures. If you think you love writing fantasy because you don’t have to do any research, let a book like this prove your theory wrong.
The plot takes place in the backdrop of the city of Tova, which awaits the Solstice. It’s normally a spiritual celebration of the New Year, a time when the Sun Priest and the acolytes of the celestial tower bring the four clans together to recognize fresh starts. But this year darkness awaits, darkness that is foretold but more brutal than anyone could believe. Three characters converge in this same event: Xiala, a Teek and a ship captain whose magic lets her Sing to the sea that gave birth to her in order to master its waves; Serapio, the vessel of a crow god, destined for a path of vengeance and destruction, but also just a man, awkward and sheltered and new in this world; and Naranpa, the Sun Priest herself, who rose to her position from crude beginnings and is the only one in the celestial tower who can fully recognize their growing irrelevance to the people below.
All of these paths converge in blood and vengeance. The celestial tower was supposed to bring peace; but law and order is never so easily controlled from on high, with obsolete tradition.
I loved Roanhorse’s writing style; her glittering, vivid prose painted complex, real characters and brought this epic universe to life with sparkling color and detail. This is character-driven fantasy, even in a small ensemble cast. And this is a story in which trans, nonbinary and queer characters are presented in a complex, real, human way. Not in a preachy way; not in a token way; not in a way that focuses only on pain or only on joy. In this world, discrimination exists; division exists; it is the ultimate conflict that drives the heart of the plot, the many layers between magic and science, spirituality and practicality, greed and community. In this world, discrimination doesn’t define the queer characters in the cast; it is not sanitized in order to allow them to exist alongside it; but rather, discrimination exists, and queer characters exist, as complex people you come to care for and cheer for. This is how you do representation and do it well.
In conclusion, I just loved every minute of this book. “Black Sun” is a revelation, and Roanhorse is a refreshing voice in a fantasy landscape that needs new voices. Like the priests in the celestial tower, it is time to join the people instead of always looking toward the stars. I rarely continue on in a series, as I am usually not in it for the long haul; but this trilogy is different. I was hooked from page one, and I am eagerly awaiting Book Two.