Rebecca Roanhorse came onto the scene a couple of years ago with Trail of Lightning, a book which was mostly well-received but which was criticized by some Navajo for getting stuff wrong (proof that a Native American can be wrong about NA cultures other than their own).
With Black Sun, she has taken a safer route. This article contains spoilers, so if you haven’t read it and intend to, please bookmark this and come back when you have.
A Mesoamerican Secondary World
Black Sun is Mesoamerican (and a bit south American and even a bit north American) in the same way Game of Thrones is European. Roanhorse has taken the entire concept of the “history-based secondary world” and applied it to the great civilizations of the Americas. The title appears to refer to the “Black sun” of Mesoamerican mythology, which is connected to Quetzalcoatl.
It’s also more literal; the “Black sun” in the book is a solar eclipse, which the priests predict. The book centers around theological and political conflict between the Watchers, a caste of astronomer-priests who guide the people and a cult in the Carrion Crow clan who believes their god is coming back.
Which might actually be true.
The book also includes Polynesian-flavored mermaids (I honestly just love Xiala), crow magic, and a dabbling of classism.
It’s Also Queer As…
Roanhorse also just throws in all kinds of random queerness, in a way which doesn’t feel like she’s checking off diversity boxes. A fairly major character is non-binary, and the culture has an acceptance of a “third gender,” as is fairly common in non-western cultures.
Randomly, a background character turns out to be a trans woman. “We were boys together.” “Now you’re a woman.” “I was always a woman.” This is a great exchange which illustrates that Roanhorse has listened to trans people.
Xiala, the mermaid, is bisexual or pansexual (neither word is used but she does sleep with men and women during the book).
None of these characters are buried, none of them are treated differently. It’s a book in which queerness just kind of exists, without having to justify itself.
All in all, Black Sun is a good book. I enjoyed the worldbuilding and the casual queerness, and I hope that she avoided being accused of anything this time. I still think Roanhorse’s true talent is in short fiction.
It is the first volume of a trilogy, and its one flaw is that it does feel as if it is part of a larger work split rather than completely standing on its own. The ending is, thus, a bit abrupt.
It’s not my pick to win, but it absolutely belongs on the ballot.