After what seems like a lull, with few decent book waiting in my reading queue, I was thrilled to see Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education, she being one of my favorite authors. Black Sun meanwhile came from the NPR top books list, and happened to be in stock in English in the bookstore here in Vilnius, Lithuania. If there was ever a book to buy by the cover, Black Sun is it. It has an amazing cover illustration.
Somewhere I read that A Deadly Education is a cross between Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson books but with a female protagonist. I find that to be a perfect description, but is in danger of making this seem just a knock-off. That is not the case, this is very much a book with its own voice. I personally found it to be a little more sophisticated and mature that either of those comparison series, targeting an older (but still young adult) audience.
I will admit, the main character of A Deadly Education is very much a grumpy, gloomy teenager. Perhaps tedious for some, but anyone who has any paranoia in them will immediately connect with her and this world. And the world building, which is excellent, is excellent for story telling and imagination, but underneath does seem to have a few contradictions. What matters most, though, is that I enjoyed the story immensely. I think I would describe it as very well balanced for it’s genre, hinting at many themes, playing with stereotypes, promoting a little modern social acceptance, and so on, but never getting lost down any one path, focused overall on telling the story.
Black Sun is also fantasy, but in some ways the opposite from the balance of A Deadly Education. Whereas A Deadly Education is set in England like every traditional fantasy, Black Sun is set in a blend of Aztec and other per-Columbian New World cultures, which are cultures almost never seen in fantasy. Black Sun also hits the social justice themes much harder. There are disabled characters, mixed and third genders, women lead as matriarchs, and so on.
The big strength of this book is the expansive and original world building. Panther pelts, giant canoes, stone knives, cliff dwelling cities, and human sacrifice are the types of things you see here. This is not another Tolkein-inspired fantasy. Well, there are giant eagles and wraith-like shadow magic, but overwhelmingly these characters are not mythic, but petty and thinking more of drink and sex than anything else.
Unfortunately, I would not recommend Black Sun. Why? Because of the ending. It doesn’t really end, there is a “to be continued” ending with lots of unanswered questions. Brandon Sanderson shows the way to do this properly: you answer all the questions, and while doing so, raise new ones for the reader to ponder for the next book. Here, we just never get the answers.
The characters are a major weakness throughout as well. Take the sun priestess for example. She is a person who rose from poverty to the highest priesthood position in the known world, and yet she continually makes blindingly obvious political mistakes. How did she ever rise that far? The author makes vague references to her being very good at reading the stars, but I need more show and less tell about these characters. Or rather, I need what I am seeing and what I am being told to match a bit more closely. As it is, they just don’t feel quite real enough.
Still I enjoyed Black Sun well enough to finish. It strikes me as more the type of book you would read for a book club, with some good points, some flaws, and generally plenty to talk about.
By contrast, A Deadly Education is a delight for all of us who grew up reading early 2000’s fantasy. If that describes you, then you must read it! It is great fun, familiar and yet still new and interesting. Avoid only if you can’t stand reading about teenagers.