Black Sun Rising is the first book in C. S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy. Although the trilogy is technically science fiction (the planet, Erna, was colonized by humans from Earth over a thousand years earlier), the themes, setting, and tone still firmly place this book in the fantasy category as well.
Imagine a world where a person’s every thought influences the life forms and forces around her. Good or evil, peaceful or aggressive, even sentient or not: every creature and landmass on Erna is affected—or created—by the worries, fears, joys and desires of the humans inhabiting the planet. The Coldfire Trilogy follows a group of adventurers through the lands of the rakh, a species that has become sentient since the human colonists’ arrival.
This book presents a brilliant and unique premise. The tectonic force that absorbs sentient thought, and then turns that thought into some form of reality, is named “fae” on Erna, and its nightmarish creations named “demons.” Human culture revolves around the fae: cities use wardsigns to protect against demons in the night, technology is unreliable, and some powerful human sorcerers make a living off their manipulation of the fae. The only other sentient beings are the rakh, who were once ordinary animals but were transformed into intelligent, tribal beings by human anxiety. After humanity’s attempt at killing the entire rakh population, the rakh keep to themselves—and murder any humans who cross into their lands.
One of the most interesting features is the Church, established over a thousand years ago by a man only known as the Prophet. He determined that the only way to mitigate the dangerous potential of fae was to not manipulate fae at all. Most fascinating of all, he harnessed the power of human group-think, in the form of religious prayer, to prevent faeborn demons from approaching the church’s surrounding area. By positively directing one’s thoughts and beliefs, the fae’s manifestations can be controlled.
Despite the strong premise, Black Sun Rising is weakened by its characters’ lack of depth. Within the first thirty pages I was put off by the romance between the painfully good Churchman-warrior Damien Vryce and the beautiful Ciani, a talented Adept (a manipulator of fae). Where did this romance come from? How did it become so powerful? Why does a man drop everything for someone he hardly knows? None of these concerns are addressed convincingly.
The one exception is Gerrald Terrant, an exquisitely dark anti-hero who instantly injects all the other characters with depth just through their relationships with Terrant. He’s mesmerizing and terrifying; there aren’t many characters who are so heroic and unambiguously evil at the same time. Terrant almost redeems all the other characters’ flatness.
Black Sun Rising is a whopping 586 pages long. Friedman would have done well to cut a significant portion of the text in order to speed up the action. Characters spend a lot of time agonizing over hard decisions and emotional pain, and despite the explicitly gory ends of several animals (and humans), the plot drags along at a cumbersome pace. Plot twists are slow in coming, and the descriptions of fae, intended to be beautiful, are often boring instead.
Why should you read this book?
Despite its many flaws, Black Sun Rising’s unique premise and setting still offer something to think about and enjoy. The characters’ reflections on an abandoned Earth and its comparably dead, unresponsive landscape are interesting, and the developing relationships between Gerrald Terrant and the rest of the cast may blossom into something more exciting in the next two books.
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