Colleen Mondor Reviews Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Race to the Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse (Disney Hyperion 978-136802466-2, $16.99, 298pp, hc) January 2020. Cover by Dale Ray DeForest.

Rick Riordan’s already impressive Disney Hyperion imprint has another winner with Rebecca Roanhorse’s adventure, Race to the Sun. Sporting a southwestern setting and Navajo protagonist while executing a traditional hero/heroine’s journey with aplomb, Race to the Sun hits all the right notes while giving readers an excellent look at some Navajo culture and legends along the way. (Also the cover is outstanding – probably one of the best I’ve seen in ages.)

Roanhorse has written quite successfully for older teens with her Sixth World series, but Race to the Sun, with its seventh-grade protagonist, is clearly for younger readers (the 9-14 age group will love it). Have no fear that the author might shy away from making the action intense or lowers the stakes in any way, as our heroine puts it all on the line in the very first sentence. ‘‘My name is Nizhoni Begay,’’ she says, ‘‘and I can see monsters. In fact, I’m looking at one right now.’’

I’m not gonna lie, Roanhorse had me from that moment.

Nizhoni and her brother Mac live with their dad in New Mexico where she dreams of middle school athletic greatness (a major delusion on her part), and her brother attempts to dodge a school bully on a daily basis. Their mother left, for reasons no one will explain, when they were babies, and while neither one of them are tipping the popularity charts at the Intertribal Community Charter School, they are getting by okay. Nizhoni’s best friend, Davery, who never met a book he didn’t like, is a stalwart companion on adventures large and small. But the Begay kids are keeping a secret – Nizhoni really can see monsters and the latest just happens to be their dad’s new boss.

Right off the bat, Roanhorse sets readers up for a major confrontation between the Begay kids and the ‘‘monster.’’ We know something is up with ‘‘Mr. Charles,’’ not only because Nizhoni thinks so but also because he threatens her life. Per the usual, the responsible adults do not believe the freaked-out kid and by the time Mr. Charles makes his move there is no one to save the kids. They end up running for their lives with the hope of saving themselves and their suddenly kidnapped dad. Then they are given a ‘‘map’’ by a mysterious Navajo elder at the train station, Nizhoni’s formerly stuffed horned toad starts providing brilliant advice and their train car stops on a mountain top where they meet – well, that’s all where it gets really good and I don’t want to spoil it.

Roanhorse brings readers into what is honestly a classic tale (transport the kids to Tatooine and Nizhoni is a budding Jedi), but weaves all kinds of great Navajo history and folklore into nearly every sentence. The pacing is outstanding, the clues compelling, and the dangers real. The kids have to be smart every step of the way (spoiler alert – they sometimes fail at this goal), and still the big bad (who manages to be both mythical and incredibly timely) is almost impossible to stop. Throw in a killer bow and arrow (as depicted on the cover), the truth about Nizhoni’s mother, the problems with fracking, a wicked cool Navajo deity who lives in a trailer, and a surprising number of laughs along the way, and it is easy to see why Riordan had to have Race to the Sun as part of his imprint. I hope that it brings Rebecca Roanhorse a lot more fans; she’s a writer who clearly deserves them.

Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website:

This review and more like it in the July 2020 issue of Locus.

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