Valentine’s Day + 1
Here’s the 6th in my series of fairytale fantasy posts!
TO REPEAT from fairytale fantasy post #1: the term “fairy tale” is misleading. What we typically call “fairy tales” are more accurately described as “folk tales,” or “traditional tales,” especially one coming from the oral tradition. I’m also not necessarily posting about the fae, although one of the books in this series of posts does have a strong fae presence. “Fairy”—“Fae”—They are synonyms (of a sort), and tales of the fae are an important fantasy subgenre, but again, I’m not using “fairy” necessarily in that sense. AND I’m not dealing with anything Disney (although I guess I kind of lied about that in the last few posts).
The fairytale fantasy novels
My top picks:
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. Based on the Grimms’ Brothers fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin. Reviewed in post one of this series.
Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord. Based on the Senegalese folk tale Ansige the Glutton. Reviewed in post two of this series.
More fairytale fantasy:
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan. Influenced by Chinese ghost lore. Reviewed in post three of this series.
Alice, by Christina Henry. Horror-fantasy re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland. Reviewed in post four of this series.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire. Re-imagining of the French fairy tale Cinderella. Reviewed in post five of this series.
Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse. Influenced by the mythology and folklore of Mesoamerica. REVIEWED IN THIS POST.
Shadow of the Fox, by Julie Kagawa. Influenced by the folklore of Japan.
For the Wolf, by Hannah Whitten. Based on Little Red Riding Hood? More on Beauty and the Beast.
Today’s fairytale fantasy review:
Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse
Rebecca Roanhorse’s 2020 novel, Black Sun, published by Gallery/Saga Press, is the ingenious and often riveting epic tale of three people caught up in a rebellion against the established order in a society inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas.
The folkloric basis of the novel:
In an interview with NPR’s Petra Mayer, Roanhorse explained that in spite of her love for the usual kinds of epic fantasy, she wanted to set a fantasy novel in a world inspired by Pre-Columbian civilizations. She explained that these civilizations have fascinated her all her life. “For this book I really dug into everything from Polynesian sailing methods to what we know of the Maritime Maya to the habits of corvids,” she told Mayer. In an interview with Arly Sorg for Clarkesworld Magazine, Roanhorse explained that while she took liberties with the details of the magic and religious beliefs of the people in the Black Sun world, she mingled them with the cultures of the historical era. I’d say a woman with a B.A. in religious studies from Yale and an M.A. in Theology from Union Theological Seminary possesses more than the necessary chops to bring this off.
As a woman of color and Native heritage, she deplores the double standard she has experienced. “I wanted to celebrate the various cultures of the Indigenous Americas by embracing their architecture, science, diversity of cultures and worldview, and then going fantastical with it. I dislike how marginalized authors are so rarely allowed to be fantastical, to have limitless imaginations and to break boundaries,” she told Sorg. “I recently saw a review complaining that Black Sun did not meet the reader’s understanding of one of the historical cultures it draws from, and I wanted to shake that reviewer and point to the giant corvids and mermaids in the story and ask if they failed to notice the book was fantasy. I don’t think white writers have to deal with that expectation.”
One of the issues here, it seems to me, is summed up in the #ownvoices movement. Here’s a great discussion of the matter, with all of the attendant angst. Bottom line, Roanhorse has the background and therefore the standing to write Mesoamerican, Pre-Columbian fantasy, and I was thrilled to read a novel not only about that part of the world and that era of history but from that informed perspective.
A personal note: I’ll tell you why this aspect of Black Sun especially resonates with me. I write historical fantasy myself. My own background is white cisgender American with ancestry in the British Isles. Most of my interconnected Stormclouds/Harbingers series of novels is set in a fantasy British Isles/Western/Northern Europe, like a lot of fantasy. Like Roanhorse, I felt that wasn’t enough. After all, I’m an American, not a European. BUT (I’m sure you see the problem!) I’m from ancestors who came to colonize, not the ones who were already here. In my novel Ghost Bird, my characters sail from an alt-Viking Age environment in an alt-Northern Europe to the alt-Americas, where they of course encounter the indigenous peoples of those lands. Ghost Bird imagines a fantasy-Cahokia and a fantasy-Chichen Itza, among other cultures. I tried: 1. to stay in the perspective of my characters, who encountered native peoples and environments as essentially intruders in a land not their own, and 2. to be respectful of the Native American/First Nations peoples and environments I drew upon for my fantasy “America.” It was a real balancing act. Did I succeed? I hope so. I certainly tried. But I do believe very strongly that in these times, that balance must be one of a writer’s most important goals. A writer, especially of fiction, has to be able to imagine herself into circumstances alien to her own experience and background. The process of imagining comes with the territory. Otherwise, maybe stick to memoir. But the fiction-writer’s imagining must be conducted with all possible respect and sensitivity.
The three main characters of this novel fascinated me from the beginning, and so did the treacherous fantasy world they inhabit. For the most part, I found the story absorbing, the characters well-done, and the writing fine.
In the middle of the novel, I did find myself losing interest in Zataya, the girl who has struggled out of the slums and into the highest reaches of the Tovan priesthood. I kept wanting to go back to my two favorite characters, the swashbuckling sea-captain Xiala and her intriguing passenger, the blind crow-man Serapio. By the end of the novel, though, I was invested in Zataya’s fate as well. At first she just seemed like a victim, much too naive, and that struck me as a bit unrealistic. In order to rise in her world, she had to have needed a sense of self-preservation and a keen nose for hypocrisy and back-stabbing, and she seemed to lack that necessary trait. Toward the end of the novel, though, she rallied and found her spine.
I found the world-building and the plot very absorbing and fast-paced. I did have a little trouble with the time-stamps on each chapter. At first they didn’t make much sense to me. As the novel progressed, though, I began to understand what was happening when, and why, so that problem went away by the end of the book, too.
With all of its positives, and such an exciting read, this novel would have become one of my favorite fantasy novels in recent memory. Except for one thing.
I’m actually very interested in how other readers react to this one thing. It’s this: the novel ends on a stark cliffhanger. I find that a deal-breaker–as in, I won’t go on with a series when I feel the author has snookered me into caring and then pulled the rug out from under me at the end. I write series, too, and I try always to get to some kind of major closure at the end, even if there are loose plot threads. But not just. . .stop. Aargh.
Now–I’m thinking other readers may not agree with me on this. I actually tried to find out. I belong (belonged, I should say) to a big Facebook group of fantasy readers, so I tried posting the question to that group: do you or do you not like cliffhangers? For whatever reason (I phrased it respectfully, I mentioned I was interested as a blogger and writer but I didn’t “self-promote” by mentioning the name of this blog or the titles of my books, and I’ve seen the same question raised by other posters in the group), my post was disallowed, so I can’t give you any good sense of this matter as I’d hoped I’d be able to. I can only say how I personally feel.
As an aside, in belonging to that group, I did feel I learned a lot about what other fantasy readers do and don’t like in a fantasy read–so I really recommend joining one. You’ll get some great recommendations for books you may have missed. There are several groups like this, and I’m not going to trash my former group by mentioning its name. Just be careful when/if you post, because there seems to be a double-standard involving who can say what in the group–at least the one I belonged to.
I’d really like your comments on this cliffhanger matter, if you have an opinion, and I will publish the comments. And now that I’m thinking about it, I’ll also post guidelines for making these comments, so if I DON’T publish your comment, you’ll know why. Very briefly they are: I won’t publish comments not on the topic of this blog, I won’t publish comments that are disrespectful in language or tone, and I won’t publish comments that self-promote or try to sell anything.
Hoo-boy. This review is getting too much about me and not enough about the book. So here are my final thoughts: It’s a wonderful book. Read it if you don’t mind cliffhangers. If you do, beware. Just saying.
Oh–P.S. Then I’ll shut up. In that same fantasy readers’ group, I discovered that a lot of people buy a fantasy book IF and ONLY IF the cover intrigues them. I’m not one of those people, but wow, Roanhorse’s book has one of the greatest fantasy covers I’ve ever seen.