Today's Top Picks

The Book CollectorsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Delphine Minoui

Summary

Reading is an act of resistance.

Daraya is a town outside Damascus, the very spot where the Syrian Civil War began. Long a site of peaceful resistance to the Assad regimes, Daraya fell under siege in 2012. For four years, no one entered or left, and aid was blocked. Every single day, bombs fell on this place―a place of homes and families, schools and children, now emptied and broken into bits.

And then a group searching for survivors stumbled upon a cache of books in the rubble. In a week, they had six thousand volumes; in a month, fifteen thousand. A sanctuary was born: a library where people could escape the blockade, a paper fortress to protect their humanity.

The library offered a marvelous range of books―from Arabic poetry to American self-help, Shakespearean plays to stories of war in other times and places. The visitors shared photos and tales of their lives before the war, planned how to build a democracy, and tended the roots of their community despite shell-shocked soil.

In the midst of the siege, the journalist Delphine Minoui tracked down one of the library's founders, twenty-three-year-old Ahmad. Over text messages, WhatsApp, and Facebook, Minoui came to know the young men who gathered in the library, exchanged ideas, learned English, and imagined how to shape the future, even as bombs kept falling from above. By telling their stories, Minoui makes a far-off, complicated war immediate and reveals these young men to be everyday heroes as inspiring as the books they read. The Book Collectors is a testament to their bravery and a celebration of the power of words.

BookBrowse Review

About halfway through The Book Collectors, I was disappointed. I came into the book with a preconceived notion that this was going to be a life-and-death story about a library. A Schindler's List, of sorts, about saving books in war-torn Syria. Yet, I felt it was missing the mark.

It was not the quality of writing or storytelling that was letting me down. Delphine Minoui is an amazing writer, and the book benefits from a fantastic, stilt-free translation from the French by Lara Vergnaud. The author intersperses her interviews with the protagonists — who were stockpiling a library of books from bombed-out houses in, Daraya, a suburb of Damascus — with a local history of the conflict and tales of avoiding barrel bombs (explosive and shrapnel laden barrels rolled out of helicopters by the Syrian military in attacks against civilians). Minoui is careful not to dramatize the war itself, which though admirable and lending credibility to the stories she shares, does not make for the most exciting retelling of librarian warriors. The most dramatic moments in the book often depict the author waiting to see if her friends in Syria are still alive to reply to her messages.

I put the book down for a while, flummoxed about not liking it as much as I felt I should. I was hopeful that perhaps it would grab hold of me when I came back several days later.

It did. Upon returning to it, I had a better sense of the storytelling mode I was stepping into. It dawned on me that I had been approaching this book through a tainted lens. The Book Collectors is not a real-life drama about a library under siege; it's a character study about men finding refuge from Armageddon, as well as hope for the future, through books.

This is not a book about saving books or a clandestine library. Books are the proverbial campfire around which these men meet and share their trials and tribulations with the author, a self-professed bibliophile living in France. The library is simply a conduit through which the survivors' stories flow. ("Men" is used explicitly here, as aside from the author and her daughter, there are only a handful of passages briefly mentioning women.) One of the men, Omar, explains:

War is destructive. It transforms men, kills emotions and fears. When you're at war, you see the world differently. Reading is a diversion, it keeps us alive. Reading reminds us that we are human.

The story being told is straightforward. Minoui, a lover of books and a writer about Shiite society in the Middle East, learns about people creating a secret library while under siege through a post on Facebook. The library is built deep underground, and the protagonists collect books from ruined homes, writing the names of the original owners in each book. They then check the books out to local residents.

Delphine attempts to meet the librarians remotely via the internet. She eventually gets in contact and builds a relationship with Ahmad – the main protagonist and a founder of the library. From there, a virtual friendship is built over their shared love of books. Communication, typically done using SMS and the WhatsApp messaging service, is tenuous during the siege, as Daraya is often cut off from the internet.

From there, they build a friendship around their shared love of books. Ahmad informs Minoui about what's happening in the suburb, how people are surviving and the state of the library, and loves to talk about books. He also begins to introduce the author to dozens of other patrons and helpers of the library. The most prominent of these additional characters are an amateur, though passionate, videographer, and the resident academic who uses the library to teach and inspire on myriad topics.

The book is largely a collection of people's feelings during the siege. Minoui shows great compassion for the horrible position they are in. She succeeds in humanizing these young men not as freedom fighters or terrorists, but everyday victims of circumstances beyond their control. They are neither pro-government or pro-extremist. They are survivors and books are their raison d'être.

The Book Collectors works because of its structure. The writing is poetic, but the chapters are short. In fact, most start and conclude with an abruptness resembling the variable length of WhatsApp video chats. In lesser hands, the book would feel like a series of disjointed journal entries recapping what was said in patchy internet interviews. But Minoui uses the choppy style to mimic the intermittent nature of how she met and came to know the individuals in the book. She then teases out deeper and hidden meanings from many of the seemingly banal conversations.

Though a serious book about a serious topic, there are a handful of absurd interludes too. For example, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People is one the most popular books in the library. The image of people reading this self-help book while being bombed and scrounging for food is like something out of a Monty Python skit. Yet, occasionally Minoui's tight weaving of stories over the years comes off as contrived. Though I'm sure the gist of the vignette is true, when the photographer protagonist is saved by shrapnel hitting his camera, the writing feels trite, if not downright sentimental, which is a shame.

The book putters to a close that might disappoint if it were not real people's lives being written about. Fortunately for the protagonists, a cliché "French ending" this is not, but neither is it happy. Simulating the traumatic survivor experiences of the characters themselves, there is no neatly tied conclusion, just a slow fade out.

The main takeaway after following this group's lives through the siege is that books offer people solace during dark times. Subject matter is irrelevant. It is the books themselves that offer people hope, a second chance. Even when all seems lost, standing on the shoulders of books, we might rise again.

Book reviewed by Ian Muehlenhaus

Beyond the Book:
Libraries and Other Imagined Communities

In The Book Collectors, a band of Syrian resistance fighters work together to salvage and share books from their bombed-out suburb of Damascus. The book focuses on the protagonists' newfound passion for reading, which helps them cope with the hardships of everyday life during very dark times.

Though it's nice to think that these young revolutionaries decided to create this library due to an untamed passion for knowledge, social scientists have shown that there was probably another, more primal reason behind their actions as well. Libraries, museums, marketplaces and civic structures of all varieties are important vectors in identity creation and community building. They are components of what Michael Billig calls "banal nationalism" — everyday representations and reinforcements of an identity that foster a sense of community and connection.

Another form of banal nationalism that a lot of us see daily, and mostly ignore (hence their banality), are flags. They serve little tangible purpose, yet there they are, waving at us from all directions, particularly near car dealerships. Why?

Flags are important for identity building. They are tools to reinforce our feeling of belonging to a larger, imagined community. An imagined community is essentially any territorial-based identity. Such identities are imagined, because in reality you may have little in common with someone living under the same flag, or even in the same city as yourself, but due to shared institutions and symbology you feel as though you belong together. This is affiliation through symbology and ritual. (For a comprehensive understanding of "imagined communities," I cannot recommend enough Benedict Anderson's classic book by the same name.)

Feelings of community are fostered when you see the same flag flying while visiting Delaware that you see in your home state, or the same rainbow flag hanging from your front porch above the bar in a tavern across town. Flags identify, unite, and as is true with every identity, also exclude. Beyond flags, which are a symbolic method of identity building, institutional norms and buildings also reinforce identity. The Romans and ancient Chinese civilizations were some of the earliest to use the repetition of institutions (e.g., courthouses and arenas) to foster geopolitical control through an imagined community. Today, commercial chains do the same. If you know your way around one Target, you know your way around any other.

In the case of Daraya, creating a functioning library offered the residents of this collapsed suburb an agora — i.e., public space — for community building. The library's size, number of books and windowless location were irrelevant. The library itself offered residents of Daraya a glimmer of hope and normal life in the midst of upheaval.

The library in The Book Collectors flourished, not merely out of love of books, but because it was a key component to building a new, independent identity in the suburb of Daraya. It helped bring together and unify disparate groups of people, united by their suffering. Social interactions occurring in this new agora, such as creating book clubs, hosting lectures, ensuring books were returned on time, were key components of community building that during peaceful times are often taken for granted — as most banal things are.

Though not a perfect comparison, parallels exist in how many local communities in the U.S. are creating new agora-like institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The nature of the COVID siege is very different — fear of germs versus bullets, bombs and poison gas — but the effect is similar. Americans' ability to interact and travel has been severely limited — either due to caution or state mandate.

Due to the fact the pandemic has not damaged our telecommunications infrastructure, places and events for socializing have often been reinvented virtually — e.g., online happy hours, book clubs and trivia groups. Where they still exist, drive-in movie theaters have seen a resurgence as traditional cinemas have been forced to shut down. Perhaps nowhere is the human need for community building and maintenance more evident than in the development of learning pods.

Learning pods are micro-community institutions that gained popularity in the spring when the COVID pandemic forced many schools across America to shut down or move online. A learning pod typically consists of no more than two to six households with school-age children. Parents and guardians create a micro-learning environment for all of the children in the households so that they can learn together. The children in the pod learn together, and membership is limited to mitigate the potential for the virus to spread.

Proponents of learning pods argue that socialization is one of the most important aspects of K-12 education. Many believe that learning online cannot fulfill the socialization needs of children and that students learn how to be collaborators and team players by working together.

Did learning pods flourish because Americans suddenly found an unyielding desire for their children to learn in groups? Some parents genuinely fear that online learning is subpar, but this probably doesn't fully explain the phenomenon. Rather, as happens anytime community institutions are destroyed, sequestered or unavailable, humans create new ones. Not only do these new institutions fulfill their explicit functions in the community, they help us build and maintain new relationships and feelings of belonging in a world of uncertainty.

Blue Sky KingdomClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Bruce Kirkby

Summary

Bruce Kirkby had fallen into a pattern of looking mindlessly at his phone for hours, flipping between emails and social media, ignoring his children and wife and everything alive in his world, when a thought struck him. This wasn't living; this wasn't him. This moment of clarity started a chain reaction which ended with a grand plan: he was going to take his wife and two young sons, jump on a freighter and head for the Himalaya.

In Blue Sky Kingdom, we follow Bruce and his family's remarkable three months journey, where they would end up living amongst the Lamas of Zanskar Valley, a forgotten appendage of the ancient Tibetan empire, and one of the last places on earth where Himalayan Buddhism is still practiced freely in its original setting.

Richly evocative, Blue Sky Kingdom explores the themes of modern distraction and the loss of ancient wisdom coupled with Bruce coming to terms with his elder son's diagnosis on the Autism Spectrum. Despite the natural wonders all around them at times, Bruce's experience will strike a chord with any parent—from rushing to catch a train with the whole family to the wonderment and beauty that comes with experience the world anew with your children.

BookBrowse Review

Who hasn't dreamed of escaping all of the trappings of today's modern life and finding a secluded, spiritually immersive oasis to reinvigorate the soul? Yet dreaming and doing are worlds apart. Not so for Bruce Kirkby, wife Christine, and sons Bodi and Taj. In Kirkby's travel memoir Blue Sky Kingdom, the family traverses the Himalayas by foot and horseback to arrive at an ethereal monastery hanging off of the edge of a mountain in Zanskar, a remote region of India. The impetus for the trip is a combination of Kirkby's increasing preoccupation with technology and Bodi's diagnosis of what is at the time termed Asperger's syndrome (now categorized under autism spectrum disorder). As the author scrolls through his phone over Cheerios, he realizes Bodi has described the entire solar system, yet he heard not a word until his son began screaming for his attention. Kirkby waxes philosophical about the tremendous toll we pay when we succumb to the sterile, isolating life behind a screen:

I understood that if there was to be any hope of truly connecting with my eldest son, of deciphering the opaque messages he left scattered in his wake and bringing light to all the beauty concealed within, I needed to be goddamned present.

Anyone who has heard the siren song of a life cloistered away from the discordant sounds of buzzing smart phones, pinging emails and vibrating text messages will feel envious as the author extols the virtues of "a rare feeling, with nothing calling." His glimpse into a world where living is grounded in nature and imbued with a sense of community and cooperation, greatly contrasts the world to which he returns. He describes his transformation as he strips away each of the tentacles of technology that tether modern existence. Certainly Blue Sky Kingdom beckons those among us who yearn for a simpler, more spiritually fulfilling life.

However, at times the plot plods along in tandem with the family journey. While stories of the boys' exploits are entertaining, and descriptions of certain architecture and rituals are enlightening, the volume of these diversions bogs the work down. No doubt Kirkby is attempting to create balance in the telling of his experience by explaining how an archaic toilet (read: hole in the ground that often spits back what is deposited within it) functions or how the "lost boys" — young monks in training — are plagued with snotty noses. But these interruptions remove the reader from more pertinent narrative threads, such as the family's attempt to come to terms with Bodi's autism, or the loss of a sense of community in today's modernized world.

Those who are philosophically inclined will be interested in Kirkby's centering of the Zanskar idea of the paspun, or community: "As a social institution, the paspun is unique to Zanskar, and every family in the village across the entire valley belongs to one." These large groups of non-related families support one another in birth, death, work, hardship and celebration, regardless of the cost. As his journey comes to a close, Kirkby astutely notes that it has brought out the best in his family, as they operate as one, or as the paspun. Such sojourns, he muses, make us keenly aware of the dissolution of traditional neighborhoods in the progressive world. After spending time with a local paspun harvesting alfalfa, Kirkby ponders what we have lost in the face of our modern gains, querying, "Why have we allowed so much of what has brought us joy in generations past to seep from our lives? Collateral damage in the search for more?" Kirkby attributes this collateral damage, in part, to the lack of compassion today's societies have for differences and the polarization of individuals in communities.

The author peppers both Buddhist and Zanskar history throughout his accountings of his family's travels, along with the wisdom of autism advocate Temple Grandin and others, to surmise how his young son Bodi will navigate through life. The book includes rich pictures of the family's adventure, along with sketches of artifacts and symbols surrounding the rituals and culture of the monastery, which facilitate an intimacy with their journey. Kirkby's vibrant description of the residents of the monastery, most particularly their host, Lama Wangyal, and a posse of young monks in training, are truly endearing.

The Kirkbys make a concerted effort to respect, understand and follow custom, readily acclimating to the paspun system. As a result, the author becomes keenly aware that this way of life is fast disappearing, and feels protective when tourists descend upon the monastery photographing the lamas during a ceremony, despite being waved off. He points out another disconcerting effect of technology and social media: "Images appear to hold more currency than the experience itself, and this hunger is inciting increasingly disrespectful behavior."

Tourism is increasing in the remote mountain range as travelers flock to catch a glimpse of this preserved ancient culture. But how much is there to see of the old ways as the farmland is being torn up to make way for highways to carry selfie-snapping gawkers to their destination, and the paspuns start to disappear as young Zanskarians are lured into larger urban areas? On their way home, the Kirkbys choose to trek out by foot and horseback through ice and snow avoiding the newly constructed roads that will carry modernization toward the secluded community. Kirkby ultimately leaves us to grapple with the question, "What human riches are we sacrificing in our endless rush toward progress?"

Book reviewed by Jane McCormack

Beyond the Book:
The Spirituality and Symbolism of Buddhist Art

In today's world, art therapy has become an increasingly popular option. According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), this experiential treatment "is used to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change." Yet the cathartic qualities of art are ancient. Buddhist monks frequently use art for similar purposes in their rituals.

In Blue Sky Kingdom, Bruce Kirkby describes the painstakingly slow and exacting process of making a mandala — an extraordinarily intricate painting created from colored sand, in this instance to honor the harvest. Lamas are each assigned a quadrant after studying complicated plans and must match the colors exactly. The work is so exacting that, as Kirkby notes, "even a few errant grains could induce a catastrophic unravelling." Monks use a long narrow funnel known as a "chak-pur" to aid in the construction. Despite the tremendous efforts to create these fantastic works of art, mandalas are ultimately destroyed to underscore the Buddhist idea of impermanence.

Monks working on sand mandala

The process is symbolic of life itself and shows major differences between ancient culture and today's frenetic world. In a land of instant gratification, such a slow and arduous task seems unfathomable. Even more incredible is the thought of destroying it, given modern rampant materialism and love for "things." Yet this process symbolizes the cycle in which we painstakingly create a life, hopefully one that is multi-faceted and beautiful, only to have it end. The key to creating a mandala is mindful attention. Perhaps therein lies the lesson for extending the metaphor to our own lives.

So too are thankas symbolic. Upon the close of their trip, the Kirkbys inquire about purchasing thankas, Buddhist paintings that adorn the monastery halls. Kirkby thinks Lama Wagyal, his host, is dismissive when he asks about them, yet the Lama commissions someone to create a painting for each member of the family, based upon their birth dates and events surrounding their births. Additionally, the Lama performs a blessing puja, a ritual of worship, as "an unblessed thanka was of no use at all." Each thanka has deep symbolic significance, as it depicts Buddha in various poses.

As with mandalas, thankas are meant to promote a deeper understanding and reinforce the tenets of Buddhism. Thankas include certain standard symbols such as the lotus flower, the parasol and the conch shell, each reinforcing an aspect of the teachings of Buddha. The puja performed for the Kirkbys' thankas also involves the destruction of statues to underscore the impermanence of life.

Kirkby seems to sense the metaphorical value of the mandalas in particular as he watches the lamas work in tandem, yet with their individual methods: "Each worked at his own pace and rhythm, and slowly a splendor of motifs bloomed: scepters, flames, flowers, castles and thunderbolts. But no one got too far ahead of the others, and there was a unity to their progress."

Monks working on sand mandala, by Mozart Diensthuber (CC BY 3.0)

My Heart UnderwaterClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Laurel Fantauzzo

Summary

Corazon Tagubio is an outcast at the Catholic school she attends on scholarship. Her crush on her teacher, Ms. Holden, doesn't help. At home, Cory worries that less-than-perfect grades aren't good enough for her parents, who already work overtime to support her distant half-brother in the Philippines.

After an accident leaves her dad comatose, Cory feels like Ms. Holden is the only person who really understands her. But when a crush turns into something more and the secret gets out, Cory is sent to her relatives in Manila. She's not prepared to face strangers in an unfamiliar place, but she discovers how the country that shaped her past might also redefine her future.

This #ownvoices novel takes readers on a journey across the world as Cory comes to understand her family, her relationships, and ultimately, herself.

BookBrowse Review

Corazon — Cory — Tagubio is a Filipina-American teenager living with her family in California. She knows she could be a better daughter and a better student at her Catholic high school. But these ordinary concerns are set aside when a new AP World History substitute teacher, Ms. Holden, enters her life, tanned and glowing from surfing, full of stories about European history, attractive to Cory in a way she hasn't felt before. Around the same time, Cory's father has a work-related accident that puts him in a coma, and the doctors are not hopeful. The relationship between Cory and Ms. Holden deepens, and Cory's mother catches them kissing. Before Cory knows it she is on her way to Manila in the Philippines to live with Jun, the older half brother she has never met in person, the child of her father's first marriage. In Manila, she meets her mother's entitled family and the domestic workers who serve them, her much less wealthy father's fallen-from-grace brother, and most importantly, Jun and his friends. Each of these characters widens Cory's perspective on what is important in life, and what real love looks like.

As its title indicates, the novel is framed by water. Cory's relationship with Ms. Holden is centered on the older woman's surfing; their days are spent at the beach, where they fall into what somewhat overprotected Cory sees as love. Later, in Manila, staying overnight in a seaside hostel with Jun and his friends, Cory realizes that, though she has been living on an island for months, she never even thought about the sea surrounding her until now. She remembers childhood days at the beach where her father would point across the ocean and tell her home was that way. Now, she finds herself looking across the Pacific in the opposite direction, feeling at home on either side.

Living in Manila also offers Cory a new perspective on her parents and the reader a greater understanding of wealth disparities in Manila. Cory's mother lived in a rich household complete with servants growing up, but a rebellious streak kept her from being the favored child. The mother Cory has always known is loving, frugal, strong and kind (even in sending Cory to the Philippines), and graciously understanding of her husband's son. She is nothing like Cory's bossy, wealth- and status-conscious aunt, who had been the favorite growing up. Her family has always looked down on Cory's father because of his poor background and his previous marriage, despite his sense of humor, his love of song, and his ability to bring joy into a room. The scenes in which Cory and Jun keep vigil at their father's hospital bedside with Cory's mother show what family is truly about.

The novel is full of rich fragments of life in Manila, from Jollibee restaurant chain takeout to brief conversations in Tagalog. The meanings of these exchanges are usually understandable in context, but a glossary (not present in the digital version reviewed here) would have been welcome. There are also some loose threads at the end of the novel that may leave the reader feeling a bit unsatisfied. However, while the ending is abrupt, it seems to represent the notion that Cory is embarking on a new chapter in her life.

Book reviewed by Catherine M Andronik

Beyond the Book:
Books by Filipino Authors for Young Readers

Melissa de la Cruz author photoNot that long ago, it would have been difficult to find many young adult or middle-grade novels featuring a Filipino or Filipino-American protagonist, let alone Filipino settings and customs as we see in My Heart Underwater. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. 

In 2005, Melissa de la Cruz, best known for her Descendants, Alex and Eliza, and Blue Bloods series, published her YA novel Fresh Off the Boat, which follows a 14-year-old Filipina immigrant to the United States as she attempts to navigate an unfamiliar culture. In 2017, de la Cruz covered similar ground in Something in Between, which features a Filipina-American teenager dealing with the complex reality of being undocumented.

Laurel Flores Fantuazzo's My Heart Underwater is just one of many books for young readers by authors of Filipino heritage published in 2020. Many of these books, Fantuazzo's included, draw heavily from Filipino culture and folklore and contain some shade of anti-colonialism, which makes sense given this nation's history. The islands that make up the Philippines were under colonial rule for centuries, first by the Spanish who arrived in 1521 and then by the United States after the Spanish-American War in 1898. The country did not gain its independence until 1946. During American colonization, the Filipinos absorbed the cultural message that white Americans of European descent were in charge, and colorism remains a relevant social issue. In My Heart Underwater, Cory's half-white-American cousin is hired as a model in Manila because of her light skin tone.

In May 2020, the appropriately named Cynthia Salaysay (her last name means "story" in Tagalog) published Private Lessons, about Filipino-American teenager Claire, who becomes the protege of a famous pianist. Chinese-Filipino-American author Rin Chupeco's Wicked as You Wish was also published in May. It revolves around a firebird, a snow queen, and King Arthur's Avalon joining forces with a descendant of Maria Makiling, a character from Filipino folklore. In September, Rokshani Chokshi, who is of Indian and Filipino heritage, published The Silvered Serpents, the sequel to The Gilded Wolves. These are both alternative history mysteries featuring a diverse cast (including a Spanish-Filipino character named Enrique). September also saw the publication of Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly's Lalani of the Distant Sea, a middle-grade fantasy novel inspired by Filipino folklore.

Filipino-American author Randy Ribay's Patron Saints of Nothing, a National Book Award finalist, came out in paperback in April of 2020. This novel features a Filipino-American teenager traveling to the Philippines to investigate his cousin's murder and reckoning with his own identity in the process.

Janella Angeles is a new Filipino-American author to watch. Her debut young adult fantasy novel Where Dreams Descend was released in August 2020 and has been widely praised by critics. It's the first in a series, and it will be exciting to see more from this emerging talent.

Melissa de la Cruz, courtesy of the author's website

Black SunClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Rebecca Roanhorse

Summary

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.

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.

BookBrowse Review

Reading the first book in a series is always difficult because readers know that, by definition, it will leave them feeling a bit unsatisfied. After all, even if it's a remarkable read, as the book draws to a close, the characters' journeys are incomplete. They still have an unknown destiny out in front of them. In this regard, Rebecca Roanhorse's Black Sun is no different. By the end of this first book in the Between Earth and Sky series, readers will have some answers but will also be sorely in want of more. This want exists in part because of the novel's minor flaw in pacing. Though there is plenty of action evenly distributed throughout most of the novel to move the story along, the final action sequence — the one to which everything has been so carefully building — passes by in a blur. Rather than producing the giant crescendo Roanhorse was perhaps looking for, characters who readers expect to have big, illuminating moments of confrontation and clarity are somewhat swept aside in haste. Having said that, I think readers will find that, beyond this blip, they are left wanting more simply because the novel is such a marvel overall.

Black Sun embodies some of the best that fantasy writing has to offer: meticulous and expansive world-building, magic and mystical creatures, and a glorious cast of fallible and transgressive yet likable characters bound together in a collective heroes' journey. This journey involves a showdown between two powerful forces. In a world where a whole host of gods once held sway, the Watchers in the Tower, a religious order who in years past slaughtered dissenters in the "Night of Knives," scheme to maintain control. But a rare celestial occurrence — the Convergence of the Earth, Moon, and Sun — provides an opportunity for a young man named Serapio to usher in the return of one of the powerful old gods. Serapio is a member of the Carrion Crow clan, raised from birth to become the vessel of said god. A masterful sailor and sea siren named Xiala is tasked with seeing him safely to his destiny.

Rather than modeling its alternate reality after medieval Europe (as so many successful fantasy novels have done), Roanhorse takes readers into the pre-Columbian culture and landscape of the Americas. Historically, when fictional/fantasy literary landscapes have so often erased whole races, cultures and gender identities, Black Sun's alternative landscapes restore a plurality and give those voices space to be heard.

One of the most significant aspects of this restoration is the way Roanhorse approaches gender identity. The novel features powerful matriarchal societies — Xiala's Teek people engage with men for reproduction but do not invite them to stay in their community. They remain independent and self-governing in their social structure and in their worship of the "Mother waters," the Teek people's goddess of the sea. In Tova, the seat of power for the Watchers, a woman leads as the Sun Priest and the four major tribes of Tova, the great houses, are also ruled by women. In one scene, two characters, Okoa and Feyou, meet after an absence of many years. Okoa does not recognize his old friend because she no longer looks as she once did. Feyou asks, "You don't remember me, do you, Okoa? We played together as boys." When Okoa inquires as to how she became a woman, Feyou simply replies, "I was always a woman. I just needed some time to become who I am." One thing that's so refreshing about this book is that this moment of focused attention on gender identity is rare. While the novel is full of diverse gender roles and identities, by and large Roanhorse gives these characters space to simply exist within the narrative without having to explain themselves. There is no overt defense of their humanity or right to be as they are. Instead, these characters, like all others, are free to love, hate, feud, scheme, fight and strive in accordance to their own will. Ultimately, the expansiveness and creativity of Black Sun is an unforgettable experience and readers will be clamoring to read the rest of the series to come.

Book reviewed by Debbie Morrison

Beyond the Book:
Pre-Columbian Religion in the Americas

Maya temple of Kukulcán, a stone step pyramid in what is now the Yucatan state of MexicoOne of the most spectacular elements of Rebecca Roanhorse's Black Sun is its deep dive into pre-Columbian culture and beliefs. In a stark departure from the usual medieval European landscape used as a foundation in fantasy novels, Roanhorse instead uses the ancient landscape and religions of the Americas as the blueprint for her work. In Black Sun, there is a conflict between the ruling cult of the Sun Priest and one of the old gods in the city of Tova. But readers learn that even this returning god is only one of many that the people worship.

As demonstrated in the novel, religious traditions in the pre-Columbian Americas were not monolithic. However, the major pre-Columbian civilizations — Aztec, Maya, Inca, Toltec, and Olmec — did have striking similarities. These similarities include a large, overlapping pantheon of gods; focus on celestial events and calendars; and ritual sacrifice. Just as many Greek deities had Roman counterparts, pre-Columbian gods in the Americas were often only distinguished by alternate names. For example, both the Mayans and Aztecs worshiped creator gods who helped the first mortals establish their civilizations. The Mayans called this figure Kukulkan while the Aztecs called the same figure Quetzalcoatl; and Quetzalcoatl may have been borrowed from the Toltec. Interestingly, the names of both of these incarnations of the deity translate roughly to "feathered serpent," lending credence to the idea that these were just different manifestations of the same creator. Scholars generally agree that there is an interrelation between these gods rather than separate, spontaneous development, but do not agree as to how this cross-emergence came to be.

Pre-Columbian societies in the Americas also found significant meaning in celestial bodies and events. These societies all demonstrated careful attention to astrology and a belief that astrological occurrences, such as eclipses and solstices, generated power and/or energy that could be harnessed by priests and other holy people. The various pyramids found throughout the Meso-American world are a manifestation of this widespread belief. These pyramids were built at points (or axis mundi) considered religiously and/or energetically significant. (Roanhorse's novel mirrors this belief in its representation of settings like Sun Rock and the Celestial Tower.) These celestial observations were an enormously important part of everyday life in the pre-Columbian Americas as interpretations of the stars influenced everything from marriages and coronations to crop rotations.

Finally, these societies were also similar in their use of sacrifice and/or self-sacrifice (such as bloodletting). The Aztecs are perhaps the most famous for performing ritual sacrifice. The image of a priest cutting someone's heart out appears fairly regularly in pop culture, such as in the film Apocalypto (the film centered around the Maya civilization but the rituals depicted were Aztec). However, ritual sacrifice was not confined to the Aztecs. It spanned the entire pre-Columbian landscape and era. There are records as early as the 1200s of sacrifice among the Olmec people. And even though conquistadors later reported these ritual sacrifices as mere barbaric bloodlust, the religious sentiment behind them was genuine.

The people in the pre-Columbian Americas believed that they had been created by, and owed their lives to the gods, and that the blood in their veins was a vestige of the divine. Bloodletting was a way for them to honor that divine gift, to offer some repayment, or to curry favor. Moreover, sacrifices were often made at religiously significant locations (temples, observatories, axis mundi). In Roanhorse's work, we get minor references to ritual sacrifice as something that happened in the past, but we get multiple references to self-sacrifice as a way to honor or interact with the gods. In self-sacrifice, like the ritual sacrifice of others, blood was the most precious commodity and worshippers would shed their own blood (or sometimes take their own lives) as an offering to the gods. Like many other cultures, the religions of the Mesoamericans did not survive colonial rule intact. In many cases, the rituals disappeared or were subsumed into the Catholicism of the conquistadors.

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