I picked up Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun looking for something by an author I hadn’t read before, and something that wasn’t a series. Apparently I didn’t manage the latter: the cover may just say “a novel” but inside you will find “Between Earth and Sky: Book One”, which I hadn’t bothered to look for until I’d bought it.
It is a fairly good fantasy novel, in a setting recognizably based on Mesoamerican civilizations. This is mainly cosmetic: the author’s interests and morality are as anachronistic as in most fantasy. However, the character Serapio is a startlingly unique creation – how much is due to American myths and how much to the author’s imagination I can’t say, but for his arc the book was worth reading if nothing else.
Roanhorse exhibits a gift for portraying character types in very short descriptions: this has the unfortunate effect in places of making minor characters seem more intriguing than some of the major ones who are portrayed in details but whose own motivations and actions end up rather flat. The action runs as tightly to a time-table as any mystery novel, which has the unfortunate effect of inducing one howling plot hole where an impossible timing is forced through without comment – oh, I can think of two or three different ways to at least hint at a justification within the story, but I can’t tell from the book as actually written whether Roanhorse missed the problem or intentionally elected to leave it to the reader’s imagination.
As Roanhorse explains in her afterword, she deliberately set out to write “epic” in a setting not based on Europe, and this extends to defying social conventions as well. Actually by the standards of much fantasy characters’ personal sexual habits, as far as explored, are rather restrained and have unsurprising consequences, even if it’s clear the author thinks those might be unfair. One city’s clans are ruled by matriarchs – although this hardly relevant to the story, and thus what I referred to as a “cosmetic” detail earlier. The ruling priesthood is – this being modern fantasy – egalitarian, and the potential weaknesses there barely hinted at.
Most unconventionally, Roanhorse includes characters who refuse to call themselves men or women – only she does it, I have to say, in such a way as seems calculated to irritate the most possible readers. I have seen it alleged that this is an attribute assigned to certain priests or shamans in some cultures; however, Roanhorse makes no use of or reference to that here: the behavior portrayed is the modern one of defying one’s physical sex as a personal choice.
On the one hand, she treats this behavior as legitimate, and the pronominal bastardizations insisted on today read like a slap in the face. On the other hand, to carry this off at all she is forced to avoid descriptions that would be given to any other character – one of the few awkwardnesses in the writing – and she quietly implies such behavior is a choice, not an essence, in that the dead body of one is described according to its sex.
This is evidently the only sensible way to regard the phenomenon, whether one condones or condemns it – but it runs counter to the “orthodoxy” insisted on by those who allow or encourage it today. Thus my comment that Roanhorse is likely to have irritated as many people as possible this way: traditionalists by including such characters at all; and today’s progressives by implicitly refusing the putative dominance of self-identification over reality.
Roanhorse – at least in retrospect – does at least use this effectively within her plot. The actual effect is hidden in a first read, and dampened overall, by her inclination to push egalitarian themes rather than trying to really get into the head of characters living in what is, by many indications, fairly traditionally divided. The themes Roanhorse still manages to hint at could have been handled with much more regard to mythic significance if she weren’t, as you might say, at war with the conceptions of the majorities within her created world.
I allow that it’s possible that many of these themes hinted at in this first volume may be worked out in greater detail or power in the remainder of the books still to be written. Only, even having read the book, I’m inclined to think it should have been left to stand alone. The ending would have to be handled differently – two or three ways come to mind – to wrap up the loose ends of the plot (or in other words, to avoid sequel hooks). The difficulty I see is that any future plot must – it seems to me inevitably – succumb again to more conventional elements, leaving the setting merely cosmetic once again. While this book was worth a read, I don’t know that I’ll re-read it, and certainly not often; as for whatever comes next, I’m likely only to look up the plot some day.