Nightborn by C.S. Friedman
It’s been nearly 30 years since C.S.Friedman concluded her COLDFIRE trilogy, one of my favorite fantasy series with a brilliant character at its core. Now Friedman is back with a prequel, Nightborn, which thanks to the unique setting of the series is actually more science fiction than fantasy. Though not as immersive and compelling as the original trilogy, it’s a fast-moving and often tense book that if anything is too short. It also includes a novella (or sort of includes, it’s complicated) that jumps forward a few centuries and bridges us to the original series.
One of the questions that quickly arises in these sorts of situations involving prequels has to do with reading order — should you read in chronological order and thus begin here with the prequel, or read in publication order and begin with the orginal trilogy. The short answer is you can do either quite happily; you don’t need to have read the trilogy to enjoy Nightborn nor does Nightborn spoil anything for the original trilogy. The longer answer is that while you can start either place, my strong recommendation is to begin with the trilogy. First is for those reasons noted above (more immersive and compelling); it’s a classic for a reason. My second reason is a bit more subjective; prequels tend to “explain” things (why is the world like this, why do characters do this and not that, why is that funny thing named that), and I kind of like not having everything explained to me. Finally, while Nightborn works as a standalone, I think it’s a richer read knowing where all this early stuff leads to. Finally, the novella at the end will probably feel hugely abrupt and detached if you haven’t read the original trilogy, as it involves one of the characters from those books. For all those reasons then, while you can start here; I’d advise picking up Black Sun Rising first. I don’t need to tell you to pick up the next two because you’ll do that all on your own once you’ve gobbled down book one, believe me.
The series takes place on the planet Erna, home to a strange phenomenon known as the “fae”, an odd energy that can mold itself (or be molded) by a human’s thoughts. The rub is those thoughts don’t have to be intentional. So if you happen to be thinking of that monster that used to scare you as a child, wholly unintentionally you just might animate that monster via the fae and then, well, it will do whatever it did that scared you (this is no spoiler btw; all this is laid out in the book’s blurb). At the time of the trilogy, humans have learned to adapt to the fae (not that’s it’s any less dangerous) and even “work” it with intent. Nightborn takes us all the way back to the beginning — maybe a thousand or so year ago as a very rough guess — when a long-traveling colonist ship from Earth has arrived, its crew woken up from a lengthy hibernation after their ship’s computer has determined the planet beneath them is habitable despite some issues mostly centered around geologic instability. The ship was supposed to spend only five years determining habitability, but it took nearly a century, which makes the colonists more than a little nervous. Unfortunately, they don’t really have any other options. So down to the planet they go, hoping for the best.
Oh well. So much for the best. It takes all of one night for one of the colonists to turn up dead. Then it’s another. Then another. What follows is a tense and quick-moving attempt to figure out what’s killing them off one by one (if you’re guessing the fae, remember the colonists didn’t get to read the book blurb).
The colony is relatively small, and the book’s focus even smaller, taking as its focus the colony’s Year One leader (after a year they’ll decide how they want to structure leadership) and his inner circle of advisors via third-person POVs and also a first-person log kept by the leader. The main characters are Leo the captain, Lise the head of medical, Ian the botanist, Dani the chaplain, Angie who has a focus on symbol and ritual and medicine, and a few others. We also get flashbacks for some of them showing either some past trauma or some event that motivated them to join a settler ship.
As noted, Nightborn moves at a fast pace, and I’d call that both a strength and a weakness. The speed helps add to the sense of urgency, of near-panic, of confusion and fear. Just like the colonists, the reader doesn’t get much breathing space, and it’s a nice mirroring effect between the reading experience and the narrative. And even knowing the fae is what causing the deaths, because of the nature of the phenomenon, also like the colonists the reader is never sure what form it will take, when it will strike, or where, or at whom. All of that is obviously the strength part of the equation. The weakness aspect is it moves a little too fast for me. I would have liked the story to slow down a bit and stretch things out a bit: a little more time for the colonists to figure out what was happening, a few more hit and miss attempts to deal with it once they’ve figured it out, a little more time to understand at least one character’s actions a bit more fully, a bit more time spent seeing the colony actually do some colony-ing before everything goes to hell. Nightborn comes in under 300 pages, twenty percent of which is the added novella that leaps ahead centuries, and I for one wouldn’t have minded another 70-100 pages spent with the colony. That said, I know a lot of people like their books stripped down, short and sweet, so this may be nothing but a strength if you’re in that camp.
Despite the book’s pace and relative brevity, Friedman does take the time, particularly via the flashbacks, to give us some good characterization, especially with regard to Leo, whose story is particularly moving. And the ending is highly effective, perhaps predicable but in the “inevitable” way that adds to the impact rather in the overly-familiar “can see where this is going, ho-hum” fashion.
The novella, as I said, takes a big jump forward in time and honestly, feels a bit detached from what came before, both in terms of narrative and style, which is much more vivid, lyrical, and nigh on gothic, as well as fitting more in the fantasy rather than sci-fi vein. It’s well written, beautifully written in a number of places, and tense in its own way, but it will I’d say play much better if you’ve read the trilogy.
Nightborn stands on its own, both in that you don’t have to have read the original trilogy and in that its main point is resolved by the end. That said, there’s a lot of history between what happens here and what happens in that trilogy, so it’s possibly we’ll see more books filling in those gaps. Based on this one, I’d say that’s a good thing, so I’m hoping Friedman isn’t done revisiting this world. Recommended, but again, as book four rather than book one.