Refugees from Earth colonized the planet Erna some 1200 years ago. Excepting its extremely high seismic activity, Erna seemed a hospitable planet for mankind to call home. However, soon after our arrival a terrible threat was discovered. A natural force of energy called the fae animated the thoughts and emotions of all living things, so that our very nightmares could be brought to life. This almost destroyed us. Then, some humans figured out how to manipulate the fae to become sorcerers. A religion was created, too, based on the hope that faith would one day make mankind immune to fae manipulations. These two events kept the struggle against the fae at an uneasy stalemate for close to a millennium. But as human civilization has been developing, a dark force fed by the sorcerous uses of the fae has secretly grown in power to become a new and powerful threat.
Friedman’s plot is original and Black Sun Rising is a perfect example of science fantasy — the world of planet Erna is based on science and logic and the the fae magic is a natural force, like gravity. Another cool scientific element that enriches this world’s history and becomes a significant part of the story is Erna’s turbo-charged evolution. Where it takes thousands of years for a species to evolve particular characteristics on Earth, on Erna it takes only two or three generations. Almost immediately after we settle on Erna, mankind’s presence affects the evolution of its primitive life-forms. Imagine humans realizing this when they discover ape-like mammals that are evolving to become our competitors in settling the planet.
What fascinated me most about Black Sun Rising is the character of Gerald Tarrant. He’s the ultimate anti-hero in the truest sense of the word, like a combination of Count Dracula and Moorcock’s Elric. Even more than that, Tarrant is a unique concept. He was once the major prophet of Erna’s religion but then becomes its “Antichrist.” He commits horrendous acts of violence but his motivation is that these murderous acts grant him the power to live forever. For Tarrant, death means more than the end of his life; his afterlife will be eternity in the worst of hells. When faced with that alternative, it’s easy to sympathize with such a vile villain.
These good things noted, Black Sun Rising was a bit of an effort for me to complete. It might be a personal hang-up because I’m a big fan of descriptive writing, but I think Friedman really missed an opportunity. With a whole alien planet to work with, it could have been a world full of cities, creatures, and landscapes, as bizarre, terrible, or beautiful as her imagination could dream up. At times, Friedman does do this extremely well, but she chooses very few items to bring to life. The rest is just left flat. Because of this, some parts of the story seem to drag on and on, making it a challenge for me to get to the end.
So I really struggled with how to rate Black Sun Rising. Many readers would give it more stars than I did, and perhaps it deserves more. But I base my rating on how easy it is for me to escape into the author’s imaginary world and how much I enjoyed the trip. There are some truly great things about Black Sun Rising, and I’m still intrigued enough to try book two, When True Night Falls, eventually. But Black Sun Rising just didn’t quite get me there.
Black Sun Rising is the first novel in C.S. Friedman’s popular COLDFIRE trilogy. I read Dominion, the prequel novella, a couple of years ago after reading (and loving) several of her science fiction novels. I admire Friedman’s worldbuilding and her writing style.
The COLDFIRE trilogy feels like traditional epic fantasy, but it would best be categorized as science fantasy because it takes place in the far future on Erna, a planet colonized by humans looking for a habitable world. When they got to this world, they discovered that natural laws work differently. Some force, which they call the “Fae,” feeds on human fears and uses those “vibes” (my word) to influence evolution. This means, for example, that creatures that aren’t real, but that we fear, such as vampires and other monsters, can quickly evolve on Erna. (This is similar to the magic system in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and Lavondyss.) Also, the Fae interfere with human technology so that it’s nearly impossible for humans to control electricity, firearms, or other technological devices.
Some humans, called “adepts,” have learned to “work the Fae.” This works even better if they make some sort of personal sacrifice. Shortly after the humans arrived and began getting killed off by the monsters they dreamed into existence, one of them, on his own, decided to make a sacrifice for the colony by destroying their spaceship and its vast store of knowledge. Thus, the humans have essentially cast themselves back to a medieval culture, which is what makes these novels feel more like fantasy than science fiction. I found Friedman’s explanation for why human beings were living in a medieval society on a new planet to be completely believable.
In Dominion, we met Gerald Tarrant, an undead sorcerer who used to be the most devout and revered prophet of the One True God (essentially the Christian God) on Erna until, seeking power, he made a personal sacrifice that was so evil that it damned him to Hell. Now he is the most powerful human on Erna, but he fears death because he knows he’s damned. In order to stay alive, he had to become a vampire and must feed on human fear and blood. Thus, the man who used to be the holiest and most revered human on the planet has become the most evil and feared monster. This trade-off — the sacrifice Gerald makes in order to gain power and knowledge — is the theme of the trilogy and it produces some fascinating repercussions, ethical dilemmas, and thought exercises.
Not all of that information is laid out in Dominion, but we get enough of it to make us want to read on to find out what motivates Gerald Tarrant. In Black Sun Rising, he is called “The Hunter” and it is known that his minions scour the streets at night looking for pretty girls to bring to their master. We also meet Reverend Damian Vryce, a devout warrior priest of the One True God who wants to rescue his girlfriend, an adept who has been kidnapped by dark forces. Thinking that Gerald is the kidnapper, he enters Gerald’s forest (which we learned about in Dominion) and finds his castle. It turns out that Gerald isn’t the bad guy (this time) and the two join forces, along with a couple of others, and begin a quest to hunt down the real bad guy (or girl).
As you’d expect, Damien is not too happy about working with Gerald — he hates the man — but Gerald is the only person powerful enough to help him. Much of the tension in the story involves Damien’s conflicted feelings about working with and not against Gerald. Other tension stems from the hardships they endure on their quest. These involve several typical epic fantasy quest issues such as being attacked by minions of an evil sorcerer, enduring earthquakes, hiking across precarious cliffs, and tunneling through underground mines. Some of their adventures reminded me a little too much of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. There’s even a Boromir-type character and I kept thinking of the “Eye of Sauron” as they entered Mordor enemy territory. Yet despite these types of Tolkienesque plot elements, Friedman’s characters and the history of her world are completely unique and what I liked best about Black Sun Rising. I look forward to learning more and exploring more of Friedman’s world in book two, When True Night Falls.
I’m listening to the audio versions of the COLDFIRE trilogy. They’re produced by Audible Studios and are very nicely narrated by R.C. Bray. Black Sun Rising is 24 hours long.
Coldfire — (1991-2012) Dominion is a prequel. Publisher: The Coldfire trilogy tells a story of discovery and battle against evil on a planet where a force of nature exists that is capable of reshaping the world in response to psychic stimulus. This terrifying force, much like magic, has the power to prey upon the human mind, drawing forth a person’s worst nightmare images or most treasured dreams and indiscriminately giving them life. This is the story of two men: one, a warrior priest ready to sacrifice anything and everything for the cause of humanity’s progress; the other, a sorcerer who has survived for countless centuries by a total submission to evil. They are absolute enemies who must unite to conquer an evil greater than anything their world has ever known.