By Heather A.
5 out of 5 stars ★★★★★
In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.
Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.
Crafted with unforgettable characters, Rebecca Roanhorse has created an epic adventure exploring the decadence of power amidst the weight of history and the struggle of individuals swimming against the confines of society and their broken pasts in the most original series debut of the decade.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
You may already know that I love reading about and learning about Mayans and Aztecs, and Incas, so when I heard about Rebecca Roanhorse’s new book that is based on pre-Columbian America, I was sold and knew I would have to read this. I also enjoyed her other book Trail of Lightning that came out a few years ago, so I know she can pack a punch. That’s exactly what she did here.
There have been quite a few discussions among book Twitter (and beyond) that fantasy based on medieval England is getting boring and magic systems feel the same in those types of settings, but in the acknowledgements, Roanhorse specifically mentions that she wrote this book as the antithesis to more traditional fantasy. I appreciate this because I tend to agree with the assessment that fantasy can be more than a Tolkien or GRRM knock-off and still be excellent. So let’s get into why this book is great.
Diverse rep: blind main character (Serapio), “disaster bisexual” main character (Xiala), other characters who identify as non-binary (xir/xe pronouns) and the normalization of such identities, pre-Columbian inspiration for the setting and languages (Yucatec Maya for the Crescent Sea cities and Tewa Pueblo Native American for the people of Tova), and Xiala’s culture is Teek, based on Polynesia–specifically they way in which she navigates ships. Also worth noting that all of the civilizations here are also matriarchal, I honestly don’t remember reading about a society in the book that did not have a woman leader.
So all this representation comes together in a really beautiful way. From the first chapter I was pulled in because of some gratuitous violence (some may say child abuse) where Serapio is blinded by his mother before she ceremoniously jumps off a balcony, abandoning him to a negligent father. Eventually we learn that Serapio hones his senses and can “see” by using crow eyes, and thanks to some tutors that come at the behest of his mother to train him, he can also fight and woodwork. His mother set him on a path that gives him powers of the crow god for a higher purpose. You can see why I had to keep reading.
I absolutely adore that Xiala is characterized by the author as a “disaster bisexual” which in this context means she is estranged from her Teek family, finds comfort in both men and women, is drunk more often than sober (the first time we meet her she’s sleeping off a drunken night in a jail cell), and when she meets up with Serapio knows that any relationship with her usually ends pretty quickly, but he may have a stronger hold on her heart than most. Xiala is also an interesting character in other ways. She’s a ship captain, and can navigate any seas by calling on her “song” that allows her to communicate with her ocean mother. This magic also comes up later in the book when she’s ostracized from her crew.
Another POV in the book is the Sun Priest, who’s main task seems to be retaining order among those who are known as Watchers in the city of Tova. They essentially watch the sun/stars/moon and make governing decisions based on this. Though I gave the book 5 stars, this world building surrounding the Sun Priest lost me a bit. I don’t know what their actual purpose was–is it just government or some magical power that I didn’t grasp? We do know that the Carrion Crows clan in Tova (where the Sun Priest is based) does not like the Watchers and Sun Priests because of a slaughter that happened 400 years prior, and we know that this particular Sun Priest is being politically ousted by her fellow priests. This comes to a head later on when Serapio and Xiala arrive in town, but may be more of a plot point for book 2.
Honestly, this was everything I love about contemporary fantasy writing. It’s diverse, it has interesting characters and plot, and doesn’t rely on old medieval Europe as a guide for the fantasy world. The action was fast paced and the friendship/romance between Xiala and Serapio is well crafted–the angst!! If you are looking for dark fantasy, this checks all the boxes.
If you are like me and enjoy fantasy maps, the S&S website has them, plus more info on the book tour. Check it out!