by Rebecca Roanhorse, the first two books of the Between Earth and Sky series
I love it when fantasy stories take place somewhere other than a medieval England/Europe setting. Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate Tolkien and his influence and the many streams that branched off from there. But whether it’s N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology (ancient Egypt), S. A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy (Middle East/North Africa), or Alina Boyden’s Stealing Thunder (India, and with a trans heroine), creating fantasy worlds drawn from different societies, different geographies, different cultures, and different time periods is so much fun. (And there are so many more I could talk about, but then we’ll never get to the actual review.)
Rebecca Roanhorse’s Between Earth and Sky series (Black Sun and the recently released Fevered Star) takes Mesoamerican/borderland societies/settings (with some Polynesian sailing influences as well) as her steppingstone in a story about a corrupt political structure, religious zealotry, magic, superstitions, and survival.
Black Sun follows four characters, bouncing between their perspectives: Serapio, destined to be the Crow god reborn and avenge his people, the Carrion Crow; Captain Xiala, a Teek sailor who we meet in jail after her night of drinking and seducing, hired to transport Serapio to the city of Tova; Naranpa, the Sun Priest, head of the Watchers who rule Tova and keep the peace, determined to root out corruption and guide the Watchers back to their original purpose; and Okoa, son of the matron of the Carrion Crow, trained as a warrior in a society that has forsworn war.
As we soon learn, the convergence approaches, aligned with a solar eclipse on the winter solstice. Prophecy hints that when the sun is at its weakest, the Crow god will destroy it. And as the planets move into position, so too do our characters converge on Tova.
I can’t talk too much about the plot for Fevered Star without giving away major plot points for Black Sun, so suffice it to say that Roanhouse delivers a solid sequel that gives us more insight into the world she created. There’s the usual second book issue of feeling like it was really setting up even bigger things while leaving them for the next installment. It definitely left me impatient for the next book. Since this was just released a month ago, however, I’m going to have to wait. But it’s clear the gods aren’t done yet with the people of Meridian and the people have their own plans as well.
Overall, I enjoyed both books. I really liked the world that’s created and most of the characters. There are assassin priests, non-binary and queer characters, and a nice dose of various kinds of magic. Serapio and Xiala are both fascinating and I loved reading their chapters. I sympathized with Naranpa, but found Okoa’s chapters a bit of a weak link. Thankfully, Serapio and Xiala get a lot of page time in Black Sun, though not as much in Fevered Star. When you read Black Sun, by the way, pay attention to the dates at the beginning of each chapter – there’s a lot of jumping around, timewise. Fevered Star is more straight-forward, chronologically speaking, and gives us some additional character voices.
There’s a line from a Tori Amos song (“Bliss”) that asks “what it means to be/made of you but not enough of you” that kept floating back into my head as I read. There is a theme of exploring culture and blood while being an outsider, raised away from your family or your people. Fevered Star in particular delves into what happens when a child who never had a chance to be part of their community can finally return as an adult, with mostly only second-hand knowledge about their heritage.
There’s a hint of Roanhorse’s own background in that, but it also ties in to a much longer and darker history in the United States and Canada of white governments stealing indigenous children, shipping them off to boarding schools, and quite literally trying to beat their culture and language out of them, not only physically separating them from their families, but linguistically and culturally as well. (Some ties to themes from Almanac of the Dead fit in here as well.) It’s deftly handled and not a blunt object with which you’re hit on the head, but if you know, it’s a connection that you can glimpse and ponder. Or you can focus on a fascinating fantasy world sailing seas, climbing cliffs, and watching the sun go black, wondering what comes next. Or both! Regardless, it’s a great way to spend your time.
When I bought Fevered Star, I debated whether I should jump right into it or if I should re-read Black Sun first. I ended up going back to the beginning and I’m glad I did. I liked being able to revisit the world and I especially liked being able to move straight into the next book when it ended. (It’s so hard reading series as they come out because I hate waiting for the next one, but I also like knowing that there’s still going to be more. Also, it’s better for the author if we’re reading stuff as it comes out, since it reassures publishers that it’s worth sticking with!) So do yourself a favor and make sure you have Fevered Star on hand as you approach the end of Black Sun! And then when the next book comes out, we can do it all again.
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