Black Sun Rising

C. S. Friedman
Black Sun Rising Cover

Black Sun Rising


A while ago a friend of mine lent me two C. S. Friedman books, When True Night Falls and Crown of Shadows. These are books #2 and #3 of a trilogy, because I am friends with people who make total sense like that. After several months of periodically looking at these books on my shelf and shaking my head, I finally got around to getting the first book in the trilogy, Black Sun Rising.

Black Sun Rising turned out to be one of those books that I enjoyed reading but that I also spent like 99% of the time mentally picking apart. Some of these nitpicks were fairly major plot issues ("This thing about why Gerald is even on this goddamn quest to begin with is pretty handwavey!") and some were small details ("If this lady uses the word 'bulk' one more time I am going to poke my own eyes out with the corners of my Kindle").

The worldbuilding is pretty interesting—sometime in the far future, humanity has established settlements on a planet called Erna, which is full of magical energies that respond to human thoughts and emotions. These energies are called fae, and there are multiple vaguely elemental types of them—earth fae, dark fae, solar fae, and tidal fae. People who can deliberately manipulate (or Work) the fae are sorcerers. Some people are born with what is basically a sixth sense allowing them to experience and manipulate the fae the way that regular people can see and play with ordinary matter; these people grow up to become adepts. The other big thing that's important about Erna is that it has earthquakes like all the time. Earthquakes are accompanied by a big surge of earth-fae and if you try to do magic during one, it will burn out your brain. A big chunk of the planet is separated from the human settlements by a sort of magical shield called the Canopy; under the Canopy live the rakh, the other intelligent species on the planet, whom humanity had (a) accidentally evolved into human-like-ness by worrying about it, then (b) had a nasty genocidal war with, several centuries ago. Rakh, understandably, do not like humans. The story, predictably, has a plotline involving our intrepid heroes at least partially redeeming humanity in the eyes of the rakh by being good helpful human people, because every story about a colonizing bunch of humans and a bunch of justifiably distrustful generic alien cat people has to go exactly the same way. (Okay, so that bit of worldbuilding was a bit shopworn.)

The quest is… a bit dumb? I mean, most of it makes sense. A bunch of weird demon things show up and they can eat people's memories, and they eat the memories and the Sight/sixth sense/general adept-ness of a lady adept named Ciani, who is a loremaster. Her personal memories remain, but all her memories of all the lore stuff she's learned is gone—basically, they've taken her identity, and rendered her useless as a magician. This is obviously pretty dangerous to people in general and all adepts in particular, not just to Ciani, so the demon things must be hunted down and stopped. So far so good.

The people on this quest doing the hunting down and stopping is where it starts to get dumb. Our protagonist/main viewpoint character dude is a warrior-priest named Damien Vryce, who belongs to the sorcery-working order of a monotheistic Church that is otherwise pretty anti-sorcery. Damien has a brief spate of sleeping with Ciani at the beginning of the novel, which seems to come out of nowhere somewhere in Chapter 2 during an earthquake (honestly, it couldn't have been any more unengagingly abrupt if Damien had literally said "Well, I'm the male lead; you seem to be the female lead, so I suppose we ought to bang now"). This seems to end after she is attacked by the demon and may never be alluded to again, depending on whether or not you think sex and romance are in any way two different things. Damien occasionally has some sad thoughts to the effect that their romance is over and he is sad because he might have been falling in love (why their relationship is automatically over because she is going through a hard time is beyond me; he is, after all, accompanying her on a magical quest to save her identity/magical powers with an extremely limited cast of other people; she is still right there). Apart from the occasional "I thought I might have been falling in love but that's all finished now (for some reason)" and some random professions of jealousy when she talks to other people, Damien does not appear to have any sort of actual feelings about anything regarding Ciani, and basically ignores her (not in a giving the cold shoulder way, but in a "his internal narration contains no awareness of her presence or existence" way) for large chunks of the trip. It's really one of the most flatly written "romances" I have ever read. It doesn't help that Ciani, while having a laundry list of awesome things about her, is pretty boring as a character, and that Damien, while having decent internal narration, doesn't seem to have any backstory or anything he wants outside of his faith and may as well have popped into existence as a fully adult perfect warrior-priest for all we know.

The character Damien does spend most of the quest brooding over and being hyperaware of the presence of is Gerald Tarrant, an evil sorcerer who is almost a thousand years old, due to having submitted so completely to evil. Despite being evil (he is literally allergic to sunlight and he only works dark fae, instead of the earth fae that regular sorcerers work), he's got some sort of Thing about honor, and if he doesn't keep up a perfect balance of evil and honor then he will actually die (or something, I am still a little confused on this part; it is explained repeatedly but it still seems weird to me). Because for some reason he made a spur-of-the-moment out-of-character promise to not let any harm come to Ciani (this despite the fact that he lives off of terror, and so spends most of his time chasing and tormenting nubile young ladies, because of course), he now has to join them on this ridiculous quest to hunt down the demon thing that ate her adeptness (I told you it was handwavey). Gerald is very very evil, and also very very useful, and it turns out that back a thousand years ago (before he went totally evil) he was the founding Prophet of Damien's church. The dynamics between the two of them play out in a way weirdly similar to a hate-at-first-sight rom-com, with a lot of brooding and staring and bickering, and initial uncompromising antagonism giving way to a sort of reluctant gratefulness about how useful the other one is. There is also a bit where they open up a magic psychic channel between them which can only be severed by death, which is a trope that usually plays as being magic-married. Also Gerald always makes sure that his appearance is immaculate so there are literally scenes of Damien (completely ignoring Ciani for pages and) internally monologueing about how fabulous Gerald's hair looks while they are being, like, menaced by hostile rakh or whatever. Damien and Gerald learning now to work together and stand each other is basically the closest thing to character growth in the whole novel. Plus they banter. It would read less like GERALD/DAMIEN OTP EVA if there were a single other pair of characters whose interactions had any chemistry of any sort, but there is not.

The fourth member of the questing party is Ciani's BFF and coworker Senza, who is not an adept, but really wants to be an adept, and his girlfriend dumps him because he doesn't love her as much as he loves mooning over not being an adept, and then he dies. His plotline is basically there to show that the Enemy knows them well enough to kill off their party members so they'd better be careful because Shit is Real.

The Enemy turns out to be another sorcerer, the one controlling the memory-eating demons, who we don't learn anything about until awkwardly late in the book. She is extremely power-hungry, at least a hundred years old, and completely insane. We only get a few scenes with her so… that is her entire characterization.

So, to recap: The worldbuilding is good; the magic system is VERY FUN. The action scenes are pretty good—detailed but still well-paced. The plot is engaging if you ignore one or two significantly-sized holes. The characterization is uneven, and I don't really like any of the characters that much personally. The interpersonal characterization is extremely lacking. The earthquakes are fabulous.

I will probably read the other two books in the trilogy, if only to be able to return them to my friend, but it will probably be when I am in a mood to laugh at stuff rather than when I am in a mood to read something really good.

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