Hugo 2021: Black Sun (Between Earth & Sky 1) by Rebecca Roanhorse

It is time for a big canvas, multi-character epic fantasy with duelling gods and political machinations. Rebecca Roanhorse follows four characters towards disaster as a holy city awaits a foretold solar eclipse.

The setting is a set of nations with a feel of pre-colonisation Americas, with influences drawn from multiple cultures. The alternating perspectives of the four protagonists make the world feel large and varied, with two people having to travel from other nations to reach the city of Tova and a third recently returned there. At the heart of the conflict is a generational crime in which the ruling Watchers murdered large numbers of the Carrion Crow clan many decades earlier. While the focus is on Tova and its religion, politics and magic, there is a strong sense of a bigger world with multiple cultures and languages.

Key to the world-building exposition is Xiala: an exiled sea captain who drinks too much and hails from the semi-aquatic Teek people — an all-female society of ocean-dwelling people of magical origin. Drawn into a contract to escape jail, she is tasked with taking a mysterious cargo across the sea to Tova, with strict instructions to get there before the capital-c Convergence. Xiala is a stranger to the politics and culture of Tova whereas the other three characters are already embroiled in events. However, each of the characters are to some degree outsiders.

Serapio (the aforementioned cargo) is a young man with mysterious powers over crows. Raised far away from Tova, he is heading home to the land of his mother. Okoa is a leading warrior of the Carrion Crow clan and like all the warriors of the Sky Made clans that mean he gets to ride a magical oversized version of his clan’s signature creature i.e. a giant crow. Pulled home to Tova by the death of his mother the matriarch of the clan, Okoa finds himself amid the lingering political and cultural tensions of Tova. Finally, Naranpa has found herself at the apex of Tova’s religious hierarchy as the Sun Priest but her lowly origin among Tova’s underclass leaves her far more powerless than her high office would suggest.

Magic, violence and cruelty run through the book but there are tender moments and the four characters are each out of their depth in quite different ways as long-laid plans draw them towards the same point in time. In particular, Serapio’s back story as a child is distressing, as he has been shaped into a magical weapon of vengeance. He is though, an excellent example of how Roanhorse makes use of the familiar tropes of epic fantasy and subverts them. Both he and to a lesser extent Naranpa have elements of the classic chosen-one trope of fantasy but neither of them in a wholly conventional sense and Serapio with a substantial sense of a dark force reborn.

The audiobook manages the frequent shifts in character perspective by using multiple narrators. That helps with the initial chapters where the reader is plunged into the rich world Roanhorse has created.

I thoroughly enjoyed this and despite the scale of the world-building, I found myself immersed into the setting very quickly. It is a book with a sense of bigness to it with quite different magical elements to it distinct to the individual characters. The growing tension as chapter by chapter we get closer to what will clearly be a very bad day for all concerned, is well executed and if I hadn’t been using the audiobook version I would probably have rushed through the final chapters.

I’ve enjoyed other works by Roanhorse but this is definitely a more skilful and mature work from a writer who started with a lot of promise. It sits in that sweet spot of delivering the vibe of the big magical saga but with enough innovation in setting and magic to feel fresh and original.

Good stuff…but we’ve also got to look at this as a candidate for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. That is a tricky question. Definitely deserves to be a finalist. I found it to be expertly crafted and original. It is an excellent example of what current science fiction and fantasy can offer a reader. However, it is also very much book 1 of a longer narrative and faces all the issues that epic fantasy has when competing in the Hugo Awards. Book 1 of a series can win Hugo Awards, in recent years Ancillary Justice, The Fifth Season, The Three-Body Problem are each the first book in a series and also stand-out winners in what is already a highly elite set of books. Yet, Black Sun really feels like we’ve stopped in mid-flight in a way those novels don’t. It’s more than just that there is more to come but that the immediate arc of the story is left hanging.

The book stops at a sensible point but it really is hard to evaluate the story as a complete thing in itself. Of the four characters, Serapio has the fullest story arc but Xiala is the most complete character. We learn a lot about Naranpa but I felt like I was only beginning to get a sense of her as a character. Okoa feels like his story has barely begun. The underlying questions of revenge for historic wrongs versus reconciliation have only partly been touched on by the end of the book. None of that is a criticism of Roanhorse’s craft, quite the opposite. The pacing of the character’s arcs here is a smart choice for building a complex multi-volume narrative. But…I feel like I’m back to the Tad Williams problem we discussed recently. It’s hard for epic fantasy because book 1 is only a beginning.

Is that unfair? Part of the negative aspect of the Hugo Awards is where we find fault in excellent books by judging them against unreasonable criteria. Gosh, Black Sun didn’t quite manage to pull off the trick that The Fifth Season managed to create a story that has the natural momentum of a beginning while the satisfaction of a complete novel! Fancy that – didn’t quite make all the elements of one of the most highly praised books of this century! Shocking! Yeah, it’s unfair and it is part of the unfairness of picking out the best-of-the-best-of-the-best. I’ll have no complaints if Black Sun wins, probably won’t be my number one pick but the Hugo Awards should reward writers showing consummate skill in the genre and Black Sun would be a worthy winner.

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