Why You Need to Read: “Black Sun”

Between Earth and Sky, #1: Black Sun

By: Rebecca Roanhorse

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Folklore/Historical Fantasy

            This year, the solstice will be marked by the rarest of celestial occurrences. As the year divides into old and new, so also will the earth, sun, and moon align in the Convergence. Over our very heads, we will witness order move to chaos and back to order again. So it is with the heavens, so it will be with Tova. We will bear witness to the cycle of evil rising in darkness to be battled back by goodness and light when the sun prevails, (Chapter 9). 

            Remember when I said that I read Trail of Lightning, the first book in The Sixth World series, because I wanted to determine for myself whether or not the author was as big of a deal as the speculative fiction genre community made her out to be? And, that the author’s book was worth reading? Well, if Trail of Lightning was part of Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut—the other being her award-winning short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience”—then, Black Sun, the first book in the Between Earth and Sky series, cements her status as one of the must-read authors within the genre. 

            There are four protagonists in this novel. First, is Serapio, the son of an Obregi Lord and a foreigner. The foreigner is his mother, Saaya, who along with three others, prepare Serapio towards his destiny of his transcendence to godhood. Second, is Xiala, a female sea captain and an exile from the Teek tribe. She is hired to bring cargo to Tova, one of whom is Serapio. The two exiles form a friendship during their journey to Tova. Along the way, Xiala learns about Serapio and realizes that his magic is just as powerful and as lethal as hers. Third, is Naranpa, one of the four priests in Tova—and, the head of the oracle society. On top of all of her responsibilities, she must deal with several political conspiracies all at once, including: several assassination attempts on her life, rumors surrounding the death of one of the matrons to one of the four tribes, prophecies surrounding the return of the crow god, rumors of what is to come on the winter solstice, talks of revenge for an event of the past, and the plot to have her removed from her seat of power. With all of these political conspiracies surrounding her, Naranpa doesn’t know who to trust. This includes Iktan—head of the knife society—one of the other four priests and Naranpa’s friend. The fourth and final protagonist is Okoa, the son of the Carrion Crow matron and future leader of the Shield, a military troop who serve as the matron’s bodyguards. After his mother’s death, Okoa rises to his role. During the transition, he uncovers two conspiracies. One is about his mother’s death, and the other is about the cultists from his tribe who believe their god can be raised and returned to them so that past wrongs can be paid back through divine retribution. All of these protagonists are complex people who find themselves being responsible for a group of people, and their choices affect those around them and everything they care about. As “The Day of Convergence” approaches, each of the protagonists develop into the individuals their roles demand of them to the point where not even the secondary characters can divert them from their path. 

            The plot of this novel involves the events that lead up to “The Day of Convergence,” which falls on the winter solstice. The plot develops through each of the protagonists as they uncover the mystery of what is to occur on that day, and whether or not it can be prevented. Serapio travels to Tova in order to fulfill his destiny of becoming a god, as per his mother’s actions. Naranpa is doing everything she can to remain the Sun Priest of the Celestial Tower while uncovering a plot of revenge against the Faith for a treacherous transgression from the past which left hundreds dead. Okoa is trying to unravel the events that led up to his mother’s death while trying to shake off the unwanted attention of his tribe’s cultist group. And, Xiala is trying to keep her powers in check while deciding whether or not to bring the apocalypse into Tova. While these appear to be four separate plots, they converge into one unforgettable moment when all of the protagonists must decide on acting on their destiny, or doing the right thing. There are two subplots within this novel which not only explains the plots, but also the motivations for the actions that take place at the novel’s end. The first one is vengeance. Vengeance, while mentioned from time-to-time, plays a large role in the story. Usually, the reason for an act of revenge depends on those who want it; but, in this case, everyone is expecting it. It all depends on who is involved and when the act will be carried out. The second subplot involves religion and magic. Similar to our world and other fantasy worlds, there are a few religions, each with its own rituals and practices. Some of this involves magic and how those in the out-group view that magic as opposed to their magic. Some of it is accepted, some are based in superstition, and a lot of it is forbidden; yet, it is all real and powerful, especially when done correctly. These subplots play a huge role in the plot development and must not be overlooked by the reader(s).

            The narratives are told from the points-of-view of the four protagonists. And, they are in third-person limited, which means readers know only what each protagonist is thinking and is experiencing at one time. Even when two characters are together, we are limited only to one character’s P.O.V. The sequence of the narration jumps back-and-forth from the start of Serapio’s transcendence to “The Day of Convergence” to the aftermath. While the sequence might come off as confusing, it is not because readers learn of all of the essential events leading up to the winter solstice from multiple P.O.V.s. So, while the narration moves from past to present, it follows a stream-of-consciousness of each protagonist so that we gain a better understanding of them, their culture, and their motivation of their actions. This presents the readers with a reliable narration (from each protagonist) that can be followed easily.

            The style Rebecca Roanhorse uses for her new series is amazing and informative. Once again, she draws on inspiration from her Native American heritage; but this time, the author draws on inspiration from Yucatec Mayan, Tewa, Polynesian and pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas, many of which continues to be glossed over in school curriculums worldwide. Some of what I recall of ancient pre-Columbian societies (i.e. Mayan, Aztec, Inca, etc.) involve rituals and ceremonies to the gods, and their calendar, which was accurate. History and folklore aside, the use of foreshadowing and of characterization enhances the story to the point where readers known what is going to happen and why, and that there was no way to prevent the events from happening. By the time everything is revealed, the protagonists have made their decisions, and what is going to happen, happens. This leaves the reader(s) stunned, yet anticipating what will happen next during the aftermath of those events. It’s a shocking and an impressive move by the author. The mood in this novel is preparation. Everything that happens in this novel revolves on the winter solstice. To many, the day marks a celebration. To the protagonists and the other characters involved, it’s a day of dread, retribution, and change. The tone of the novel is fate. Without getting into too many spoilers, two of the protagonists were predestined to be part of “The Day of Convergence,” but an argument can be made that they could have chosen to resist that fate at any given time before that day. In fact, the choices of the other two protagonists should be noted as well because they all have no choice but to live with the decisions they make leading up to the winter solstice. I read an eARC of this book, and it did NOT come with any maps of the setting. Luckily, Rebecca Roanhorse provided some of the maps through Tor.com, which made picturing the mentioned towns and the distance between the cities easier.

            The appeal for Black Sun is already positive. So far, literary critics and other authors have praised Rebecca Roanhorse for the story she has written. Fans of the author’s urban fantasy series will be impressed with how the author can fuse her heritage into one story of the past and another story of the future. Not to mention that this book is an amazing addition to the fantasy canon, and will leave readers anticipating the second book in this series. Fans of historical and/or mythological fantasy—Tasha Suri, S.A. Chakraborty, Evan Winter and Silvia Moreno-Garcia—should read this book as soon as they are able to, they will enjoy it a lot.

            Black Sun is proof that Rebecca Roanhorse can weave her talent and her heritage into powerful stories over and over again. If you need a reason to read one of her books, or if you want to read a fantasy series that will take your expectations to another level, then you really should read this book. It has everything from magic and prophecies to political power struggle based on a moment in human history, in which it all could have happened, but its setting is a fantasy world. I don’t know about you, but while I’m waiting for Book 2 of this series, I’ll be reading Storm of Locusts, Book 2 in the author’s other series. Enjoy!      

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “The Starless Sea”

The Starless Sea

By: Erin Morgenstern

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Magic Realism

            Only the singular section of “Sweet Sorrows” is about him, though pages are missing, upon close inspection there are numerous vacancies along the spine. The text comes back to the pirate and the girl again but the rest is disjointed, it feels incomplete. Much of it resolves around an underground library. No, not a library, a book-centric fantasia…(Book I: Sweet Sorrows).

            I have a confession to make: I haven’t read The Night Circus, yet. Yes, it’s shocking that I’m reviewing The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern before reading her impressive debut novel. All I will say is this, I was more curious about the author’s follow-up novel than her debut novel and I made the effort to read the recent book before the previous one. I didn’t want to write a review in which I make the same argument that has been done to both Harper Lee and Jeff Eugenides. So, without further comparison or explanation, here is my review of The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern’s homage to New York City and libraries around the world.  

            There are three protagonists in this novel. The first is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student who is studying Emerging Media Studies at a university in Vermont. He is spending his semester break reading his favorite books alongside classic books. During another trip to the university library, he comes across a book titled, Sweet Sorrows, which has no clear hint as to what the story is about. After reading a section which refers to a moment in Zachary’s life with the description: “The boy is the son of the fortune-teller,” the book goes missing from his possession. Zachary decides to investigate the book’s origins, the library it originally came from, and the opportunity he missed all those years ago. The second protagonist is Dorian, a member of one of the organizations who knows about Zachary, the book—Sweet Sorrows, and the Starless Sea. One thing which is a mystery (at first) is for whom is Dorian working for, what his goals are, and why he keeps switching allegiances. Last, is Mirabel, a resident of one of the Harbors of the Starless Sea, who assists Zachary on his “quest” to rescue Dorian and to save the Starless Sea from destruction. Other characters who are relevant to the story are: the Keeper—the keeper of the Harbor, Kat—Zachary’s classmate from the university, Allegra—a woman who wishes to seek the destruction of the Starless Sea, and Madam Love Rawlins—Zachary’s mother, who is a fortune teller. All of these characters assist with the development of the protagonists through their knowledge of the Starless Sea, and the knowledge of the protagonists’ roles in saving the library. Their love or hate of each other will determine how they will get through the dilemma they’re in together. 

            The narrative switches between the characters, the settings (especially time) and the sequence. It might start off as confusing, but the breaks and the change in narrative allows the reader to know what each character is experiencing in relation to the plot. The narrative has six sequences that follow the characters on their journey as they learn about the Starless Sea, their connection to it, and the ongoings of the world beyond the Harbors and the Starless Sea (our world). These parts are the titles of the books written about and read by all of the characters. Due to this sort of narration, all of the POVs are told in 3rd person omniscient with each character being a reliable narrator. This is because their streams-of-consciousness and points-of-view allow readers to understand the reasons for their actions within the story. And, while the jump in sequence between the past and the present start off confusing, the readers will get used to this narration and will find it easy to follow. 

            The style Erin Morgernstern uses in The Starless Sea is specialized, but not typical. The idea of there being a story (or several stories) within a story is nothing new; and, it shouldn’t be new to fantasy readers. The concept of different forms of literature (i.e. prose and excerpts) written within one book is not new. Yet, the way the author writes her story using those practices are what makes her story so captivating to read. Add to this the description of New York City and its notable landmarks, and allusions to various books and pop culture references presents The Starless Sea as a creative tribute to Manhattan and to nerds everywhere! And, as a former grad student who studied emerging media studies, all of the references to “the Hero’s Quest” and video games was a nice touch to an inner group of the nerd community (Thank You)! The mood in this story is one of urgency. The urgency of meeting someone, the urgency of saving something, and the urgency of value are essential to the story. The tone is the meaning of that urgency for a group of individuals who are connected to each other, but have different ways of dealing and handling with an urgency. Not everyone is going to react the same way to an urgency, and that is essential to know for this book.

            The Starless Sea was one of the most anticipated novels of 2019, and it was on my list of best speculative fiction books of 2019. While it received praise from NPR, Amazon, and The New York Times, there have been some mixed reviews from readers. Without getting too deep into those criticisms, I knew that this book would be different from The Night Circus, and the style and the format of the book did not “interrupt” my reading of this book. Readers who’ve read books similar to The Sisters of the Winter Wood will not be surprised by the changing sequence of narration. Readers who’ve read books similar to Gods of Jade and Shadow should be familiar with the actual places used as setting—in which you can follow along with a map. And, readers who’ve enjoyed The Ten Thousand Doors of January—or, any portal fantasy story—should know the idea of Doors and other worlds. The Starless Sea stands apart from the books mentioned because of the story the author wrote for her readers. It seems to me that many readers were so caught up with comparing this book to the author’s previous one that they failed to recognize and to enjoy the story they were reading. The Starless Sea is about the love for people who share one’s interests and the love shared amongst a group of individuals for a landmark; it is a story about love and what someone will do for it.  

            The Starless Sea is the long-awaited follow-up book by Erin Morgenstern. The story consists of well-developed characters, elements of mystery and love all within a magical library that could exist below Manhattan’s subway system. This is a beautiful story meant for fans of portal fantasies and urban fantasies. Whether or not you’ve read The Night Circus should not dictate on reading The Starless Sea, you’re the one missing out on a great story.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).

Why You Need to Read: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Coming-of-Age

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!