It takes a strong person, and a strong protagonist, to speak up for what they believe, even when what they choose isn’t popular. But such protagonists don’t always see themselves as strong. In the case of Teo in The Sunbearer Trials, the newest YA fantasy from author Aiden Thomas, he only believes that he’s a troublemaker. And it takes him a long time in the story to realize that sometimes, a little trouble is needed. Sometimes, so-called “good trouble” (as the legendary Representative John Lewis termed it) is an absolutely necessary part of changing unjust systems. And Teo’s world needs a lot of change in order to be more just.
For The Sunbearer Trials (and its presumed sequel—be warned, the novel ends on a cliffhanger!), Thomas creates a secondary fantasy world that’s technologically similar to ours, but in which gods, demigods, and mortal humans openly walk together. Long ago, the sun god, Sol, sacrificed themself to save humans from the treacherous Obsidian gods, binding them into constellations to keep them from bringing chaos to the world. To keep Sol’s protections active, and to hold the Obsidians at bay, those known as semidioses, the children of the Gold and Jade gods, take part in the Sunbearer Trials. The winner, the Sunbearer, renews the sun stones in each temple with the blood of the loser, who is sacrificed in Sol’s image.
Teo, Jade semidios and son of the goddess Quetzal, thinks the whole thing is a raw deal. Jade gods are viewed as less powerful, and their children are sent to public school rather than the fancy Academy the Gold semidioses attend. Sol, still present within the sunstones, hardly ever chooses Jade semidioses to compete. As a result, Teo’s mostly concerned about the fate of his friend Niya, a super strong daughter of Dios Tierra who can change stone into weaponry with her will. Niya’s an obvious choice for one of the ten competitors—which means she could also be the one chosen to die.
What Teo doesn’t expect is to be one of the ten selected himself. He and another, younger Jade, Xio, are both named as competitors, the first time in anyone’s memory that two Jades have been chosen in one trial. Given their disadvantages as Jades, Teo’s angry at the unfairness of their inclusion—but he’s also determined that he, Xio, and Niya will all make it through to the end and survive, if only to show the Golds that they aren’t second rate citizens.
And when Teo starts to do well at the trials? He begins to believe that maybe he could compete. Maybe a Jade winning this event would finally shake up the power structure in his world. But it’s never far from his mind that when someone wins the trials, someone else will die—something that doesn’t sit right with him, either. Against that backdrop, the narrative drops continued hints that an outside force is working to undermine the trials, and that Sol may have motivations no one understands; with the broad ensemble cast, however, it’s hard to guess who the villains really are right up until the climax (and even then, there may be surprises to reveal in the next installment!).
Thomas sets up a protagonist who believes the system is rigged against him and doesn’t see himself as a Hero (a title only bestowed upon Gold semidioses) because the world refuses to see him that way. Teo wants to travel the world, but knows his fate will be in his home city, because only Golds can hope for a larger role in protecting mortals. But readers know from the first few pages that Teo has the heart of a hero. When the people of his city are in trouble, he steps in to protect them, even when it means putting himself at risk. Protecting others is such a core trait to Teo that he doesn’t even notice it. He’s so used to feeling like he doesn’t quite fit the mold—as a Jade, as a semidios who lives among mortals, and as a trans boy—that he accepts himself as a misfit, an unloved troublemaker (even though it is clear the mortals of his city love him, and his mother’s priests do as well).
The rich world Thomas creates around the death-game theme is populated with a cast of well-developed, diverse characters. Even the most brutish, superior bullies among the Golds have moments that show a different, more sympathetic side. Teo’s former friend (and possible love interest) Aurelio, Niya, and Xio are frequently the most central figures, but the other teens among the ten never feel like they fade into the background as static. Each is a unique person with their own fears and feelings about the trials—something difficult to accomplish with such a large supporting cast in a single book.
With a central mystery, a series of challenges worthy of the best magical tournaments in this genre, and a distinct Latinx inspiration, The Sunbearer Trials offers plenty in terms of action and plot, but centers itself in the justice-seeking heart of its protagonist. The story leaves Teo still questioning his choices, but readers will have faith that in the next novel, he’ll succeed in making his world a better, more equal place.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role-playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.