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.
That’s the plot summary for Black Sun Rising
, the first book of the Coldfire Trilogy (the other two are When True Night Falls
and Crown of Shadows
). Sounds like a bad RPG scenario, doesn’t it? And instead it’s one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read.
C.S. Friedman is a highly skilled writer, with a tight visual style that carries you straight into a character’s head until you’re inside looking out. She has also built a fascinating world: Erna is not “once upon a time”, but a planet in the far reaches of our own Galaxy, on which a colony ship lands when the choice is between it and sailing on into starless space. On this planet, energy fields (the fae) can manipulate and be manipulated by the human mind, and in both cases the results are often disastrous.
Just this world, in which a warrior-priest can slice demonlings to shreds in one breath and perform an operation to correct a congenital heart defect in the next, a world where faith can really work miracles, would be interesting enough. But that’s not the reason why I gulped down three 600+page books in as many days.
Damien Vryce (warrior priest, healer, professional pain in the ass) and Gerald Tarrant (vampire, sorcerer, prophet, winner of the title of most stubbornly proud man on Erna for the past nine hundred years running) are two of the most fascinating characters I’ve had the pleasure to encounter. Gerald, evil and corrupt, is all that Damien hates; Damien, devoted and conflicted by the dichotomy between his faith and his magic, is all that Gerald doesn’t want to remember. Fireworks? Try WMDs.
Other characters are painted almost equally vividly, and the author has a talent for making the reader see all sides of the story. The surface plot of each book is a quest, but it’s the inner journey and character transformation that’s the real story. A character-driven fantasy book is rare enough; one this well-written is a gem.
And it doesn’t exactly hurt that Gerald and Damien are made for each other. If any slashers need enticement, highlight this (minor spoilers, nothing that’ll diminish your enjoyment of the book): midway through the first book, Damien allows Gerald to drink his blood in order to form a bond that’ll allow Gerald to feed on his fear by weaving nightmares for him. The one adjective Damien always uses when describing Gerald is "seductive". Gerald will literally or verbally bite off the head of anyone who opposes him – except Damien. Damien is also the one person who can touch Gerald, or whom Gerald willingly touches. Whenever Gerald’s upset about something, he storms out (slamming doors if any are available) and then waits for Damien to come reason with him. And that’s not even mentioning what happens in the third book.
Word of warning though: the first book starts with a prologue that drives home just how nasty Gerald is – and that’s very nasty indeed. If you can’t forgive a character for killing his own children
for his own means, Coldfire might not be for you. Or maybe just read the main book until the earthquake and then come back to read the prologue once you know you can root for Damien either way ;)
I'm not saying the books are perfect, because the pacing suffers sometimes and I have issues with the ending, but Coldfire is fascinating, rich, compelling, with a thousand possibilities – my current pet theory hinges on the way human subconsciousness influences the fae and vice versa, also known as "he’s not that evil, he’s just written that way". If you like fantasy in the slightest, do read it. If only so that I can have more victims for the Coldfire fics I’m writing.