Yes, it absolutely is as excellent as the premise makes it sound.
Look, I had high expectations for The Sunbearer Trials. Given the summary, the commissioned art author Aiden Thomas has been sharing, and his previous work—I went into this expecting a marvel.
And it was absolutely everything I hoped for and more.
So if you’re also coming to The Sunbearer Trials wanting to love it, I’d say there’s an incredibly good chance you are going to love the absolute hell out of it. And if you’re new to Thomas’s writing, this book is a perfect place to start.
This is a propulsive, Mexican-inspired fantasy full of excellent character dynamics, trans catharsis, and Thomas’s trademark humor. The Sunbearer Trials is a brilliantly rendered exploration of what it means to question everything about the system of one’s world, while also being an instant comfort re-read. It’s one of those books that simply feels good to read, where the universe comes alive within the pages and you want so many characters to be your friends. This is a compassionate, unapologetic novel about community, identity, and justice, wrapped inside a propulsive, expertly paced adventure that glows with magic—and intrigue.
Every ten years, nonbinary deity Sol selects ten semidioses to compete in the Sunbearer Trials in order to keep the destructive Obsidian gods at bay. Typically, only descendants of the Gold gods are selected. They’re the ones perceived as the Heroes of Sol, schooled in an elite academy. So when Teo, Jade son of Quetzal, Diosa of birds, is chosen, he feels incredibly out of his depth. He’s not alone as an anomaly though—amid the powerful, expected Gold Heroes, Sol also selects Xio, the young Jade son of Mala Suerte, Dios of Bad Luck. The other Golds don’t really consider either a threat. In fact, it’s kind of a given that one of them will lose the competition, which comes at a steep price. The winner of the Trials becomes the Sunbearer, the triumphant figure who saves the world for the next decade—by sacrificing the loser of the Trials to Sol.
Thankfully, Teo and Xio aren’t entirely alone in their plight—they have Teo’s best friend on their side, the mighty Gold Niya, daughter of Tierra, Dios of Earth. Together the three of them will do their best to protect each other through the trials. Teo’s intentions are complicated even further by one of the other Gold competitors—Aurelio, the gorgeous, mercilessly competent son of the Flame Diosa, and Teo’s former best friend. As the semidioses travel the cities of Reino del Sol and compete against each other in intense challenges, they’ll come to discover that this decade’s Trials might be even more dangerous and crucial than ever before.
The sweeping, intricate worldbuilding is laid out clearly, and anchored by Teo’s charm. He’s such a fun, compelling character to follow: a headstrong and compassionate underdog who wants to protect the people he loves. He’s driven by the desire to do right by his mother, Niya, Xio, and all other Jades past, present, and future. Teo, along with many other characters, is also queer and transgender. I don’t want to spoil all the ways Thomas cleverly weaves queer- and transnormativity into his world, but I will say that Teo’s relationship to gender is going to deeply resonate with many transmasc and nonbinary guys of color. Thomas delivers many different gender expressions and identities, exploring how they would manifest in his fantasy setting while also grounding them for the reader through familiar, real-life experiences. There’s an emphasis on queer chosen community, and its strength in the face of established power. The result feels transformatively impactful, a fraught, glorious fantasy world that makes intentional room for readers who have historically had to translate themselves into story.
Thomas is also known for crafting excellent intercharacter dynamics, and they shine here. Predominantly the gloriously genuine friendship between Teo and his best friend Niya, but the entire group has great chemistry, as rivalries and interests clash. And they clash—particularly with the children of the Flame Diosa. Auristela, Aurelio’s powerful twin sister, is deeply suspicious of the tentative, burgeoning rekindling between her brother and Teo. The swoony slowburn romance at the undercurrent of this story is alit with tension. The best friends to rivals to ?? works so well here, because their history becomes incredibly charged in the intense setting of the Trials. Thomas’s trademark tenderness sings between these boys.
The more the reader, Teo, and the rest of the contestants learn about how their world works, the more we learn about how it doesn’t, how some of the systems Teo took for granted may not be as fixed and beneficial as he was brought up to believe. I’m so grateful it’s the first in a duology, as I’m very much looking forward to the follow-up! Though as much as I eagerly anticipate the sequel, The Sunbearer Trials stands extremely strong on its own. It’s charming and intricate, and brims with mystery, joy, and humor. A thoroughly satisfying volume that promises a very compelling finale.
Aiden Thomas delivers a dazzling magical adventure that balances sky-high stakes with beautifully intimate character dynamics. The Sunbearer Trials is on the next level of “chosen one” narratives, rendered with such intentional compassion. It’s clever and transformative, but also just goddamn fun. It reads like a megahit, and for me, it’s Aiden Thomas’s best yet.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Fil-Am and Jewish writer and poet. They have a short story forthcoming in the YA anthology Night of the Living Queers (Wednesday Books, 2023). She works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel. Find them on Twitter (@mayagittelman) or Instagram (@bookshelfbymaya).