Review: Black Sun Rising (Coldfire Trilogy #1)

Black Sun Rising is the first book of C.S. Friedman's Coldfire Trilogy, first published in 1991. Most reviews I've seen of this relatively obscure series are vague and steeped in nostalgia, so I was hesitant to take the plunge.

After reading Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun—a sublime but exhausting experience—I sought out shorter reads and spent some time with non-genre fiction and non-fiction. Eventually, I wandered back to my SF/F backlog for some escapist fun and found Black Sun Rising, and boy was it (almost) everything I'd been looking for.

We're introduced to the world of Erna mostly through the eyes of Damien Vryce, a priest of the Church (with a capital "C") who also happens to be a badass wandering swordsman. After tragedy befalls a close companion, Damien embarks on a quest to the hostile rakhlands with a band of sorcerors that includes the notorious and feared Hunter: Gerald Tarrant.

Black Sun Rising is science fantasy, with sensibilities that lovers of Hyperion, Lord of Light, and, yes, the Book of the New Sun will appreciate. The planet Erna resembles Earth at first glance but obeys starkly different laws of nature that fuel magical abilities. There's no obvious technology in this book; instead, it blends a typical medieval fantasy setting with interesting scientific concepts. The atmosphere is dark and brooding, bringing to mind the Witcher books. And while it isn't technically horror, there are moments steeped in grisly, stomach-churning detail. The malevolent creatures of this world are closely tied to the psyche of its human inhabitants, such that fear itself will result in even more horrors.

Friedman has created some compelling characters, but even more captivating is the dynamic between Damien and Tarrant, an aspect often cited as a highlight of the series. These polar opposites are at odds in their principles, ideology, and abilities. One protects life even as the other seeks to subjugate it. Damien soon finds Tarrant an essential boon to his quest, however deep his hatred of Tarrant's twisted nature. Damien's struggle to come to terms with his dependence on one who is anathema to his personal values allows a tired cliche—the co-existence of good and evil, and their relationship to power—to stand unabashed. This is a darker kind of fantasy with complex and sympathetic characters, and none of the overwhelming nihilism and senseless violence of 'grimdark'.

All of this is delivered through sweeping, sensuous writing that still manages to be crystal clear. Friedman's prose has a cascading quality that sweeps you off your feet into her immersive world. Things familiar and foreign are both described in visceral detail, without the over-explaining that some SF/F authors seem all too ready to indulge in.

As I hinted at earlier, parts of this book are less stellar in my opinion. The pacing is very uneven, and large swathes of the story involve slogging through unforgiving landscapes, so Lord of the Rings haters beware! The way characters retread earlier monologues is also repetitive and adds to a bloated feeling in between truly mind-blowing scenes. Moments that feel melodramatic and forced are a consistent and annoying feature that I had to learn to ignore. Sure, there are rare moments of wit and levity, but I got the feeling that this is a story that takes itself a bit too seriously. Many chapters end in a dramatic pronouncement of despair, or on a profound one-liner that somehow feels hollow.

Those who demand fight scenes and/or rock-hard magic systems will be disappointed, I suspect. However, I can't recommend Black Sun Rising enough if you're hunting for an underrated gem to cleanse your jaded SF/F palate. It's also an excellent dark fantasy for those who, like me, don't have the stomach for straight-up horror but want something a little more unsettling for a change.

Day 24 of #100DaysToOffload

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