A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun
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.
This book has been a long time coming. I added it to my tbr when I first heard of it, was very excited when I got the arc and also got the audiobook immediately upon release. But I never did get to reading it because my head was a mess last year, and I completely avoided reading all books which I had high expectations for. But I finally braved it this month, at a time when I am again in a bad reading slump, but this had me completely in its grips from the first word and wouldn’t let me go till I was done.
What a refreshing world the author managed to create here. While creating European inspired worlds is pretty common in the fantasy genre, I have tried to diversify my reading in the past year or two to try and pick books where the worlds are created by authors with Asian or African heritage, taking inspiration from their own cultures and mythologies. However, I never even gave a thought that a world could be based on pre-Columbian indigenous American cultures, and I was completely in awe as I discovered this epic wide world created by the author. We have cities and towns and tribes, each with its own set of cultures and belief systems, bound by a treaty to ensure peace in the world, and watched over by a priesthood who believe themselves capable of reading the stars and predicting the future. I am obviously ignorant about the history and couldn’t discern which aspect of the world building was inspired by which culture, but nevertheless the author managed to create something which felt real and lived in, and very much a part of the daily lives of its people. The various magic systems are also lightly described and I was amazed by the scenes where it came into play, but I also have a feeling that this aspect will be more prominent in the next book. And also except for some personal prejudices/superstitions, this is also a very queernormative world, with all forms of genders and sexualities just accepted as part of the normal and where this aspect of a character doesn’t drive the plot.
The writing is really engaging and mesmerizing from the get go. All the descriptions were quite vivid and I could feel the cold, the pain, and the fear that the characters were experiencing; as well as the feeling of being on the sea in the middle of a ship killing story, the air hitting your face when on the back of a giant corvid, and the dread of being on the edge of a cliff just before falling down. The pacing is also just right, never slacking off even for a bit, making me excited to keep turning the page without ever putting the book down. I was frankly quite surprised by the use of neopronouns, because I have personally never encountered them before, but they felt very organic to the world that the author created. All the POVs are woven seamlessly through the story, and I was so glad that I loved everyone equally and was looking forward to read about each of their adventures. Listening to the first half of the book on audio also helped because the full cast of narrators are brilliant, and I loved getting to know how to pronounce the words correctly.
The way the collective history and the trauma of the people is told through this story felt very raw and painful. Each of the clans or tribes has suffered in the past and while there maybe peace currently, the hurts nor the pain have been forgotten, and every generation inherits this trauma, alongwith a deep seated need for vengeance (or justice) for their peoples. Add to this a dose of religious fanaticism and belief in vengeful prophecies, and it makes for a powder keg of a world which is always on the verge of the next riot, or maybe even outright war. I thought the author’s handling of the topic of generational trauma and the cycle of revenge was very realistic and hit me quite hard.
And it was this writing that made me very empathetic towards most of the characters, despite whatever action they were keen on taking. Serapio’s life has been traumatic since his birth, first with his mother treating him like a vessel to fulfill her goals, and his father ignoring him either out of fear or disgust. He has been told and trained and prepared to fulfill his destiny, but I couldn’t help but feel bad that he never got much of a choice. It was hard to see him determined to achieve his goal as vengeance for a people whom he didn’t even know, but at the same time I also wanted him to succeed.
Xiala on the other hand was a delight. Belonging to a people who are feared because of their abilities, she has to navigate a lot of misogyny, prejudice and fear to be able to work as the captain of a ship. She is also open with her affections, just wanting to have a good time with some drink and a chat with the people around her. But it’s not always easy to find that camaraderie that she so desires, and that’s why I really loved her developing relationship with Serapio.
And the last one is the sun priest, Narampa. She is admirable for having risen up to her position despite being from a humble background, and believing so thoroughly in the responsibility of her role and the priesthood as a whole. But she is also naive enough to think only her beliefs are right, as well as that she alone can reform an age old status quo. I honestly wasn’t surprised to see her encounter many obstacles, and despite her sometimes questionable decisions, I did want her to be safe.
There are also a good number of side characters as well as creatures who make this a very memorable read, and though most of them had very less page time, I can assure you that they leave an indelible mark and it hurts when something bad happens to them.
In conclusion, this is what epic fantasy feels like. A vast world with scope for being more expansive, characters who are not always likable but still very much will find a place in your heart, a fast paced plot with multiple threads that all converge with an impending sense of doom, and an unexpected ending where you are left wondering if any of your favorites made it. I’m extremely happy that I seem to be having great luck with fantasies these days and I can only hope it continues. And now I’m eagerly waiting for the sequel news, which the author promised would be coming soon.
PS: Thank you to Gallery Books and Simon and Schuster Audio for providing me the advanced ecopy as well as the listening copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.