Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky, Book One) (2020) by Rebecca Roanhorse, is a thrilling epic fantasy inspired by the mythology of the indigenous people of pre-Columbian Americas. The primary characters are Serapio, a young man who is blind and rejected by his father after his mother’s death as a result of preparing him for a sacred purpose; Xiala, a female ship’s captain whose ancestry is Teek, a seafaring women-led society with special powers of song; and Naranpa, a female Sun Priest in the City of Tova, the leader of the Watchers, who monitor the heavens and study the patterns of the sun and the moon. Okoa, the oldest son of the Carrion Crow clan in the City of Tova, is also introduced, and it seems like his role may be greater in future installments of the series.
In the City of Tova, there are four Sky Made clans: Carrion Crow, Golden Eagle, Water Strider, and Winged Serpent. The clanless are from Dry Earth, and live in the Maw at the bottom and sides of the narrow canyons. Her descriptions of city of Tova, which is at the top of a series of buttes connected by bridges high above deep canyons is reminiscent of what archeologists have been able to determine about the cities of the the cliff-dwelling Ancestral Pueblo people.
Roanhorse has also created multiple nonbinary and transgender supporting characters, and queer relationships are common. For Iktan, the Priest of Knives, or assasin for the Watchers, Roanhorse uses the nonbinary pronouns xe/xir, and while xe is the most developed of the nonbinary or transgender characters, xe is not the only one. At the opening of the book, Xiala is jailed because of having been with a woman in a city where “such love is forbidden,” and she later is open and bawdy about her relations with other women, while maintaining her authority over a crew of male sailors. When Okoa meets a childhood friend who he played together with when they were boys and notes that he is now a woman, she responds “I was always a woman. . . I just needed some time to become who I am.”
Xiala is hired by a merchant lord to get human cargo to the City of Tova in twenty days, the fastest way through open water, which has dangerous, ship-killing storms in the late fall. She finds out that the human cargo is Serapio, who must get to Tova in time for the Convergence, or Winter Solstice, which this year is accompanied by an eclipse. In the meantime, Naranpa is dealing with assassination attempts and some sort of political plot against the Watchers that may involve one or more of the Sky Made clans.
In the acknowledgements, Roanhorse thanks her disability consultants, noting that “in many indigenous cultures, physical disability does not hold the social stigma it does in mainstream Western culture and in fact can be a sign that the individual is ‘god-touched’.” I so appreciate that she made the effort to avoid bad tropes in writing about Serapio’s blindness.
Finally, I did not read any indication of fatphobia, anywhere. At the very beginning of the book, a jailer is described as “thick and solid” with a “heavily jowled face” in contrast to a toothless too-thin woman and a merchant lord who was “neither too thin” or “thick.” Naranpa was described once as “small and lightweight” in the context of the advantage that gave her in childhood in climbing the walls of the Maw. Those were the only physical descriptions that discussed body size, and I read them as neutral descriptors. While I would have liked there to be characters of differing body sizes, I appreciate the fact that Roanhorse did not impute Western fatphobia into her fantasy world.
I highly recommend Black Sun as epic fantasy set in a unique world, with magic, giant talking crows, Teek women with eyes a kaleidoscope of jewel colors, and a thrilling plot leading to the next book. I can’t wait!