Congratulations to both Black Sun, the first book in the Between Earth and Sky series, and its author Rebecca Roanhorse! This book was so much better than I was prepared for, and I feel so bad that I didn’t read it in 2020, that I have invented a new award that we will use going forward – the S.O.B.B.O.L. (Sorry our bad, best-of list). SOBBOLs are books that we should have read in their published year because they definitely would have made our best-of list for that year had we read them. Black Sun likely would have been around the edge of our top ten and is generally a fantastic read. It has a lot of positive elements going for it, but the book’s top qualities are the intense prose, memorable characters, and interesting world.
The opener of Black Sun is easily one of the best I have ever read. It is absolutely metal as f*** and I think it will bring every reader into the story immediately. The book introduces one of the lead characters as his mother ritually deforms him in order to become a receptacle for divine power, while his father desperately claws at the door to the room to stop what is happening. It was less of an introduction to the story and more a profound experience that would continue until I turned the last page. This in a way, perfectly sets the mood for the rest of the novel as I would characterize it more as a collection of personal journeys than a traditional narrative. The book eschews a centralized story, instead opting to put you into the shoes of a myriad of different characters and their struggles.
I want to avoid speaking much more about the plot, as explaining the shape of the story can spoil some of the profound character moments that litter these pages like loose gems in an endless vault. Roanhorse is a profoundly compelling writer who, through the use of her beautiful prose and refreshing character perspectives, has crafted a story about people that will transport you fully into a new world. It is one of those rare books that feels like the author pushed you through a portal, allowing you to feel the texture of the dirt and smell the air and lose track of how long you are reading for hours at a time.
The world is also fantastic. It is a strong step away from the Euro-centric fantasies that come out en masse and feels wholly its own thing. There are religions and pantheons revolving around deified animals. There is a pair of cities built on top of one another with the poor living underground and the rich touching the skies. And there is a floating city of sea women who capture rainbows in their eyes. This book is absolutely packed to the brim with imaginative peoples, places, and cultures.
Black Sun is one of the best examples of modern storytelling I have read recently in the sense that it doesn’t feel like it has baggage from past influences. It is a new take to me, not noticeably derived from past novels, and relying primarily on lore and Roanhorse’s imagination for inspiration – and what an imagination it is. The book is fittingly diverse, with a huge range of representation that welcomes every reader. Its inclusive nature is reflected in its themes, and it contains a handful of beautiful quiet moments of love that blossom up like resilient plants through the cracks of a concrete jungle of terror. Black Sun will make you feel things, good and bad.
The one thing I didn’t love? Black Sun is simply too short. The pacing and urgency of the narrative are perfect, but when you get to the last page you are left at what feels like the middle of a climax. I need to know more. I demand answers. Tell me what happens next. It felt like a strange place to end the book. Similarly, there are three core leads who you spend the entirety of the book with, but there are also a few additional ones that start to get POVs towards the end. They only get a thimble full of chapters which upsets me because I bought into their stories hard. They feel like they are getting set up for larger parts in book two, but this only exacerbates the fact that I wanted Black Sun to be a little longer to give the full cast more time.
As I always say, if the worst you can say about a book is that it was too short, then it was probably a very good book. Black Sun is a powerful, original, progressive storytelling experience that will teleport you to a world that is both beautiful and cruel. Its star-studded cast of complex characters will stick with you long after the last page and leave you begging for the release date of book two. It is definitely worthy of a best of 2020 title -the best we can do is give you the inaugural SOBBOL.
Rating: Black Sun – 9.0/10