Continuing to read fantasy with an eye to that feedback on Southern Discomfort I got a while ago.
BLACK SUN: Between Earth and Sky Book One by Rebecca Roanhorse worked for me even though I don’t normally like epic fantasy. Part of that is the strong characters, par the setting (based on pre-Columbian North America). Also, unlike a lot of epic fantasy, sharing info about the worldbuilding didn’t become tedious as I often find it.
The book opens with a woman, over the opposition of her husband, performing some kind of magic ritual on her son, including sewing his eyes shut. We then jump forward some years to start with Xiala, a female smuggler of a matriarchal society widely feared for their sea magic. She’s recruited to carry a mysterious passenger to Tova, one of the world’s great cities, using her powers to control the weather and get the boat across the open sea (like many sailors in ancient times, sticking close to the coast is preferred).
Meanwhile, in Tova, we meet Naranpa, current high priest of the sun. She’s risen from the bottom dregs of society to lead a priesthood much less powerful than it used to be. Some think she doesn’t deserve the gig …
The book is third-person POV, usually close up and that’s how we get our exposition: people reflecting on their past, current politics, their relationships. This can easily turn heavy handed but Roanhorse makes it work. And when it works it’s much less tedious than working into conversations (as in Black Wolves which I found insufferable). That I liked it gives me confidence in Southern Discomfort‘s exposition, as I went much the same way (which is not to say I’ll do it as well, of course).
While the feedback on my book mentioned epic fantasy having a slower pace and starting with lower stakes, I don’t find Black Sun‘s pace slow: the tension is high from the first. However it is much more personal stakes — Naranpa’s political struggles, Xiala dealing with her crew — even though it’s clear as we go along that the stakes are rising.
DIE AND STAY DEAD by Nicholas Kaufmann, by contrast, ups the stakes very quickly. This sequel to Dying Is My Business opens with the amnesiac thief Trent and his friends saving a woman from a mage/serial killer sacrificing them to his kid. The killer knows something bad is coming and he hopes his demon-deity will save him. It’s action packed, then after Trent gets the woman home, we get some mystery (she’s worried about someone else stalking her). When Trent goes back to see her the next day, she’s been killed, cruelly.
We learn early on the stakes are high. Twenty years ago a cult tried to summon a demon prince to destroy the world. They botched the job and died instead … except one. Now he’s putting together the mystic McGuffin that will enable him to complete the work. Trent & Co. have to beat the villain to the McGuffin, but Trent’s distracted by a beautiful woman who recognizes him — is this his chance to get a life back?
The book is enjoyable and I’m sorry V3 isn’t in the pipeline (Kaufmann says sales were to low for his publisher). It’s biggest flaw is that there are two big reveals, both of which were obvious well in advance. That may have been intentional (one of them is so very, very obvious) but it didn’t work for me.
There’s a lot of exposition here too, even in the slam-bang opening chapter. However it is slam-bang, where Southern Discomfort is a political strategy session (and an unrelated personal discussion) interrupted by murder. Not slam-bang.
The Impossible Takes a Little Longer is better in that respect as the opening chapter involves KC preventing a ritual sacrifice. It’s tense (I hope). However things in the current draft slow down considerably for the next couple of chapters, something I’ll have to think about when I go back to the book (probably not until after Alien Visitors is done).
Another thing that occurs to me is that urban fantasy tends to go considerably wilder than Southern Discomfort does. Kaufmann’s book has mages, demons, Trent, vampires, zombies and necromancers. The world has a hidden, magical history. Southern Discomfort is closer in some ways to intrusion fantasy — one piece of magic intruding into a nonmagical reality (Impossible is a good deal more colorful).
So the reading was useful. And fun to boot.
#SFWApro. Cover illustrations by John Picasio (top) and Chris McGrath (bottom)