Gabriela Romero Lacruz’s debut, The Sun and the Void, is an enjoyable epic fantasy novel about reincarnated gods and underdog survivors, that richly draws upon Venezuelan myth and folklore. Intricately plotted and peppered with a broad cast of characters, the novel’s primary storyline follows two women of mixed heritage navigating a world rife with prejudice and treachery, where they must constantly prove themselves—at times with detrimental consequences. Concerned with several conflicts (a revolution that overthrows the colonial powers yet after which injustice and inequality persist; the stifling of indigenous magic traditions, as orthodox religion gains ground; the humanity of so-called “monsters” versus the monstrosity of the humans enslaving them), Lacruz weaves an enchanting narrative that feels particularly relevant in the light of contemporary discourses about decolonization and agency, and is a promising start to her Warring Gods series.
The tale unfolds from the points-of-view of two main characters. On one hand, we have Reina Duvianos, who is apprenticed and indebted to her power-hungry grandmother, Dõna Ursulina, and struggles to break free from her poisonous hold. On the other, there is the naive Eva Kesaré, who elopes and marries the vicious Javier Águila in a bid to escape her cruel family, only to contend with more violence. Both these characters are part woman, part something else: Reina is half “nozariel” (an intelligent bipedal species, marked by their pointed ears and tails, usually enslaved or employed in menial labor), while Eva is one-quarter “valco” (another bipedal species, distinguished by their antlers) and is further singled out by her family for being a bastard and having an affinity for magic. Thus, both are outcasts, striving to find their place in a society that constantly discriminates against them.
While I’m not much familiar with Venezuelan history or Latin American folklore, I enjoyed the attention to detail of Lacruz’s worldbuilding, be it the tempting references to local cuisine, music, or a description of two players engrossed in a game of cards called “Calamity” whose strategic gambling moves echo the conflict between the novel’s two deities—Ches, the god of the sun, and Rahmagut, the master of the void, a nozariel conqueror who ascended to godhood. Very deftly, Lacruz establishes a vivid fictional world in which anthropomorphic species (the tailed nozariels, the antlered valcos, and the chimeralike “tinieblas”) coexist uneasily alongside humans; where the magic of “Geomancia” and the monotheistic religion of “Pentimiento” are often at cross-purposes; and where, despite a successful revolution, the cycle of oppression and enslavement continue. Myth and superstition pervade all strata of this society. Indeed, much of the plot hinges on “Rahmagut’s Claw,” an astrological event during which the chaos god can be reawakened with the aid of a particularly gruesome sacrificial ritual.
The magic system of Geomancia, on the other hand, is a tad simplistic, more in line with pagan notions of witchcraft and mostly revolving around spells for protection, healing, combat, and so on. On the other hand, the magic itself is interestingly derived from natural resources such as metals. This reminded me of Brandon Sanderson’s metal-based “Allomancy” in the Mistborn saga, where the manipulation of metals bestowed certain superhuman abilities on the caster, but Geomancia is simply not that thoroughly developed, at least in this first book. Similarly, the conflict between the encroachment of organised religion (as symbolised by Pentimiento, whose followers worship crosses and the Virgin goddess) and local witchcraft (such as the powerful magic practised by Reina’s grandmother in secret) is both clearly an allusion to the complicity of Christianity in rooting out older, indigenous customs, and wrought somewhat lazily. A better exploration of the same within the genre of commercial speculative fiction can perhaps be found in Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy, steeped in Russian folklore and history, in which the struggle between Orthodox Christianity and the ancient spirits and legends of the land is far more pronounced. Nevertheless, it’s a good sign that genre fiction is slowly but inevitably becoming more welcoming of narratives that are firmly rooted in the histories and folktales of non-white cultures, moving beyond formulaic Tolkien derivatives into worlds where the coups against a brutal regime are no longer devoid of any nuance or real-world resonances.
Indeed, The Sun and the Void is heavily engaged with examining how cycles of violence are often kept in place by both colonial and familial power structures. Eva’s story initially begins as a cautionary tale. Shunned by her family, she writes to Javier (half human, half valco, but belonging to the aristocracy and with access to the natural resources required for magic) and asks for a partnership. Charmed by his manner and promises, she quickly agrees to marry him, only to realise that he has a latent but ever-growing violent streak. Instead of becoming another victim of the patriarchy, however, Eva learns to assert herself, and chooses to harness her innate magical abilities to make the best of her situation. Meanwhile, Reina is determined to carve a better life than her other nozariel counterparts, and so she risks a journey through mountainous woods infested with tinieblas to join her grandmother’s aristocratic ranks—but pays a huge price for it: grievously injured, Dõna Ursulina (who’s also the de facto head of the Águila household) saves Reina’s life by crafting a contraption powered by iridio, a rare magical element, rendering Reina continually dependent on the goodwill of the Águilas for her survival. Desperate to be a part of the family, Reina becomes complicit in several heinous acts, including the kidnappings and murders of infants and young girls.
Both women are continually betrayed by their own families, as well as the aristocracy that has replaced the former colonial powers. Moreover, for Reina in particular, transgressing class boundaries is near-impossible until she becomes a sort of oppressor herself and tries to find ways to justify the vile acts that she witnesses and abets. But the rewards for her compliance are mere crumbs, designed to keep her in place. Yet, the author allows her to see the error of her ways and find redemption. Her unrequited pining for the pure-hearted Celeste Águila is heartbreakingly beautiful and acts as a catalyst for this eventual redemption, which only begins when Reina learns to see beyond herself and the drive for survival and comes to understand how she is a part of a larger system, fraught with inequalities.
Another character, Maior de Apartaderos, retains an ability to remain kind and see the good in people, even in characters like Reina who—on account of having internalized the colonial attitude about her kind—struggle to see it in themselves. She becomes a major player in the book’s latter half, having led a sheltered life, like Eva, until she is captured for a sacrificial ritual, and begs a hesitant-and-conflicted Reina for mercy. In return, Maior ultimately aids them both. Lacruz ensures that her grim, angsty scenes are occasionally peppered with moments of tenderness, and that, through her, nearly every character—whether they are virtuous, villainous, or in-between—can be empathised with.
The novel highlights how the forms of violence that are perpetuated and legitimized by the institution of family and blood relations often operate on their own hierarchical principles. Don Enrique Águila may be the patriarch who controls the vast reserves of iridio and grieves for his late wife, but true power is held by Dõna Ursulina. The vindictive grandmother and the oldest member of the household, Ursulina was in turn formerly betrayed—and thereby feels justified in manipulating others for her own selfish ends. Thus the conditions are created in which the powerless and those with limited agency are forced to side with their oppressors to ensure their own survival, even if this upholds their continued enslavement. The only alternative is to risk death for a greater communal cause. This is a crucial, insidious aspect of colonial, neo-colonial, and capitalist enterprises all around the world. Interestingly, conflating the elderly in the family with the oppressor also emphasizes how regimes of abuse and tyranny are transmitted across generations, and are, therefore, incredibly hard to shake off. In this way, solace and freedom lie in the breaking down of toxic familial bonds and in the breaking apart of colonial structures, including self-harming attitudes that may have been internalized over generations of oppression. Reina, Eva, and Maior, all failed by their family and by those in influential positions, thus learn to choose allies based not on illusory promises of power, but on mutual respect and trust.
The author’s carefully crafted plot hints at these themes compellingly. While the first half of the novel slowly eases the reader into a lush and wondrous world and establishes the complex family dynamics among the Águilas, I found the second half to be quite unputdownable, moving at a break-neck speed, awash with satisfying twists and turns. However, halfway through the book, with several secondary characters like Maior in play, the effectiveness of the dual points-of-view chapters is somewhat reduced, though the approach still serves a thematic purpose.
Overall, Lacruz’s debut is a well-paced, entertaining novel. This tome of over five hundred pages is accompanied by detailed maps, a glossary of terms and family trees (very useful in the initial expository chapters), and evocative illustrations of the main characters (turns out the author is also a highly talented freelance artist). It uses this familiar fantasy form to probe colonial power structures and toxic family dynamics, placing several memorable female characters in the lead. Suffused with magic, myth, and gripping action sequences, The Sun and the Void sets the stage for a sequel in which the stakes are sure to be higher, and the warring gods (behind the scenes in this novel, but seemingly working against each other) will finally come out to play—or to do battle.