At the 2004 BookExpo America, Ursula K. Le Guin addressed the problem of “assumptions” in fantasy, which afflict authors, presses, and readers alike. “Put crudely,” she told her audience, “it’s like this: in fantasy, 1) the characters are white, 2) they live sort of in the Middle Ages, and 3) they’re fighting in a Battle Between Good and Evil.” There is a literary justification for these conventions: the fantasy mode grew out of medieval folklore and legend; perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that it trains its backwards gaze toward the received marvels of pre-scientific Europe. Still, after centuries of literary evolution, the fantastical mainstream might have long ago learned to embrace the wealth of possibilities that non-European, non-white, and non-Christian traditions offer. Happily, recent trends are seeing progressively more titles from talented writers who take inspiration from the untapped dreams of canonically othered worlds.
Rebecca Roanhorse, who is of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and African American descent, is part of a growing contingent of specifically Native American and First Nations authors using the speculative tools of science fiction and fantasy to decolonize Western imagination. Her newest novel, Black Sun, which has already been named a finalist for both the Hugo and the Nebula, draws from the mythological wellspring of the pre-colonial Americas. In so doing, it spins an epic that is both satisfying and fresh.
While Black Sun supplies the gods, spellcasters, and folkloric beasts of high fantasy, the novelty of its indigenous consciousness revitalizes some of the more tired tropes of its genre. The transformative magic of such an enterprise rings out even before the first chapter, when Roanhorse dedicates her novel to “that kid in Texas who always dreamed in epic.” Although “that kid” ostensibly refers to her child self, the ambiguity of the phrase leaves room for kids of any race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality, ability, or class. Haven’t we all been that kid, in one way or another?
The pages that follow bear out the promise of the dedication, collecting an unexpectedly diverse set of characters. The novel is structured, like many epic fantasies, in alternating point-of-view chapters. Although there are four POV characters, three of them dominate most of the narrative: a blinded young man who becomes a god; a heavy-drinking pansexual mermaid with lovers in every port; and a naïve and unorthodox priestess who has bootstrapped her way to the top. Taken together, the experiences of this ensemble sketch out the contours of Black Sun’s storyworld: one that borrows from Polynesian, Yucatec Maya, and Tewa languages and traditions; one that stages difficult conversations about race, class, religion, and individual identity; and one that glitters with the enchantment of radical heterogeneity.
The book’s most overt gestures towards this heterogeneity are in its treatment of gender and sexuality. More than simply flipping the script on the masculine hero and helpless maiden clichés, Black Sun dreams genderlessly or, perhaps more appropriately, in gender surplus. Effusions of gender expression litter the text, normalizing both “they” and “xe/xir” pronouns and demonstrating several of the infinite possible embodiments of fluidity. Even the tiniest details of worldbuilding, such as men who wear “leggings and hip skirts adorned with colorful string and embroidery” (p. 214), illustrates the dazzling potential of what it could (literally) look like to decolonize gender. Through the perspectives of the POV characters, we can also see that the structures of their internal dialogues effortlessly accommodate this variety. Within a storyworld so full of inaccessible magic—men who speak with crows, women who becalm the waters with song—this small piece of cognitive magic reveals a promise of rich inclusivity we could access in our daily lives, should we only choose to do so.
Even so, the book seems to maintain an awareness of our colonized consciousnesses and Roanhorse takes an occasionally instructive approach with these conversations. “‘If you are neither man nor woman, what are you?’” one character asks. “‘A third gender,’” his interlocutor replies, “‘one I don’t believe you acknowledge here in this little backwater country. I am bayeki. But what should concern you more is that I am a Watcher’” (p. 223). In another example, a character bumps into an old acquaintance who has transitioned. Upon recognizing her, the character says “‘But now you are a woman.’” She replies, “‘I always was a woman […] I just needed some time to become who I am’” (p. 209). These conversations do the work that genderqueer people shouldn’t have to do: “what should concern you more” than someone’s gender applies to everything else about them; despite changes in appearance, a genderqueer person “always was” exactly who they still are. These moments also show us just how easy it is to affirm someone’s gender without losing sight of all the other qualities that make them who they are.
Carefully distinguishing gender from sexuality, Black Sun nonetheless celebrates the diversity of expressions for both. The book’s most vibrant character, for example, is the mermaid sea captain, Xiala, whom we first meet in jail for brawling with the man whose wife she had drunkenly seduced the night before. Xiala is Teek—an elusive race of sirens who live on a remote island where men are said to disappear. For a reason that never becomes completely clear, Xiala has been exiled from her home, and she masks the pain of her displacement with the swagger of a rogue. Despite her penchant for drink, sex, and adventure, however, she secrets a kernel of tenderness that is so clearly aching to be drawn out.
Within the context of the Black Sun universe, Teek culture is uniquely rigid when it comes to sex and sexuality, and through this prism Xiala’s narrative arc in turn outlines yet another possible trajectory for us non-mythical creatures. Where the start of the novel colors her sexual proclivities wanton, she learns in stages how to anchor herself, even in her nomadism, within her hybrid identity and begins to release the cultural shame surrounding her affection for people of any gender, including, shockingly, men. Ultimately, she learns to manage her desire without relinquishing it, which transforms it from something salacious into something sacred and deeply sexy. Gender and sexuality are, after all, social constructs with specific histories. What could be more invigorating than shattering centuries of repression through the simple acts of connecting with your knowledge of yourself and of your desire?
Roanhorse adopts a similar approach to disability, explaining in her afterword that “in many indigenous cultures, physical disability does not hold the same social stigma it does in mainstream Western culture” (p. 334). She’s on trickier ground here with her choice to blind her most powerful character, the scrappy crow-god Serapio, who can inhabit animal consciousness, darken skies, and wipe out dozens of people at once. It would take considerable dexterity to avoid the potential pitfalls of the “blind seer” or “disability superpower” tropes, which are problems inasmuch as they risk instrumentalizing blind characters and thereby denying them the fullness of the human experience. Here is where Roanhorse’s decolonial project arguably comes into conflict with efforts to remediate ableism in fiction.
As Roanhorse notes in her afterword, indigenous traditions often view disability as “a sign that the individual is ‘god-touched’” (p. 334), and Serapio indeed represents such a figure. By sharpening his other senses, Serapio’s blindness becomes a kind of superpower; but it is also one he can temporarily overcome through the use of a magic dust, which essentially revokes his blindness during critical moments. Mindful of the precarity of these choices around Serapio, Roanhorse collaborated with disability consultants who helped her “make sure he was completely human, too” (p. 334). She very much succeeds in that endeavor: Serapio is complex, sympathetic, terrifying, and tender. Whether the representation successfully navigates the thorny path between decolonial imagination and disability discourse is a debate I am not positioned to referee. I will venture, however, that her choice to center identities that are so often sidelined and underdeveloped is radical and important in its own right.
As a whole, Black Sun is much more than the sum of its parts. It is immediately engrossing (I finished it in three days!), and, despite its bulk, infuriatingly ends too soon. Luckily, it is the first in Roanhorse’s ongoing Between Earth and Sky trilogy. The beauty of the storyworld she has created is in what its epic sublimity show us about the world we inhabit. A long time ago, colonial efforts to overwrite indigenous lifeways with those of European Christendom failed. Roanhorse draws from surviving countercurrents of pre-colonial consciousness, and in so doing demonstrates their ongoing vitality. Black Sun’s vision destabilizes the pull of white medieval European fantasy, showing us the ways in which the Americas are and always have been magical.