Black Sun Rising (The Coldfire Trilogy #1)
by C.S. Friedman
First published in 1991 by DAW
From Goodreads: On the distant world of Erna, four people–Priest, Adept, Sorcerer, and Apprentice–are drawn together to battle the forces of evil, led by the demonic fae, a soul-destroying force that preys on the human mind.
It can be a dangerous business, going back to revisit the things you loved when you were younger. What if you end up hating a book or movie you loved when you were a kid? What if that thing you loved turns out to be incredibly shallow or problematic? Since August seems to be the month that I am going back to re-read old favorites, it’s something I’ve been thinking about more often. So far, I haven’t hated anything I’ve read for the first time in years but it’s entirely possible that I could end up disliking something I loved when I was 12 or 22. I was a much different person then. I’ve grown up a lot, gotten a lot more experience, and hopefully gained a bit of wisdom.
I first read C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy when I was a junior in college. A good friend had just finished it and couldn’t stop raving about it, and so when he loaned me the entire trilogy, I had to give it a shot. I loved it then. It was unlike anything I’d ever read before, and was my first real foray into dark fantasy. Before that I’d been reading Tolkien, Mercedes Lackey, and Anne McCaffery and as much as I enjoyed those books, they tend to be on the lighter side.
In Black Sun Rising, Friedman introduces us to the world of Erna, a world colonized by humans from Earth who had fled the dying planet thousands of years earlier. What the colonists did not know when they settled Erna was that it was teeming with strange spirits they named fae. These spirits were spawned by nearly every active element on Erna– tidal forces, earthquakes, light, dark, etc. They were also highly reactive to human thought and intentions and caused immediate physical changes to the world itself and the life forms they found. In the wake of this, various philosophies and religions sprang up, each with their own ideas of what to do about the fae and how to use them to adapt to or change the world.
The story opens with a horrific crime. A brilliant visionary turns on the institution he helped to create, which causes him to turn on his own family with terrible consequences. The lands around his home are changed utterly, becoming a realm of fear and death to those unlucky enough to enter without The Hunter’s leave.
A thousand years later, Priest Damien Vryce arrives in the city of Jaggonath at the invitation of the Pope, the leader of a vestige of an Earth religion resurrected to fight the fae and try to change Erna for the better. During his stay, Damien falls for an Adept named Ciani Faraday, a woman gifted from birth with the ability to bend the fae to her will. When strange creatures from the outer lands attack Ciani and take away that which she holds most dear, she, Damien, and her assistant Senzei embark on a quest into unknown lands to recover what she has lost. On the way, they encounter a strange and frightening man named Gerald Tarrant and are forced to accept his help and company thanks to their dire circumstances. Tarrant is utterly evil, though, and Damien worries that their souls will be tainted by their association with Tarrant. And yet, they cannot hope to achieve their goals without his aid.
Though the setting of Erna is a planet far, far away from Earth it could just as well be Hades itself. Lands and cities are named for destructive gods and spirits or for features of mythical underworlds like Lethe. The tone and atmosphere are dark, the settings dark, and the company must often move at night. Daylight is a force that brings as much destruction as it does hope, and even moonlight is ominous thanks to the tidal forces it summons. Few things are joyful on Erna, and yet the group carries on. To do otherwise could condemn humanity to an endless cycle of fear and pain.
Erna is a world of gothic horrors that demand the reader’s full attention. Vital clues show up in unlikely descriptions, and Friedman’s philosophies come through in conversations that feel like they aren’t imparting much of import. Most importantly, Friedman does not treat the reader like an idiot who needs to be spoon fed information a teaspoon at a time, over and over again. She trusts the reader to figure things out on their own through context and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exposition. And what’s more, Friedman challenges the reader to examine their expectations of good and evil characters. Damien is a good man, but is his cause a just one? Can he justify the things he has done on this quest, and do the ends justify those means? Tarrant is utterly evil, and yet there is a purpose to what he does. But does that purpose benefit him alone? What will this constant contact do to Damien, Ciani, and Senzei as they travel further into the unknown?
I have met few people who have read The Coldfire Trilogy. It was written in the 1990s, and so is considered to be ‘old’ in much of the bookish community. Old, and therefore passé. But in my opinion, it is one of the most underrated fantasy stories of the 90s. It does not follow popular tropes or narratives or send it heroes off to collect some great and magical object. Black Sun Rising shows us an eerily beautiful world filled with dark and frightening forces. It subverts our expectations and provides an unflattering view of humanity’s strengths and weaknesses. It questions our innate desire for ever more power and examines what it does when we either achieve it, or fail to achieve it. It is as dark and unforgiving as the world it is set in, and is utterly fascinating. The Coldfire trilogy is not the easiest to locate these days, but if your tastes in fantasy run dark, it is worth the effort to find it.