I finished this trilogy a while ago, but I’ve found myself dragging my feet when it came to writing up the reviews I had some mixed feelings about this series and it was giving me a serious case of writer’s block. I liked these books. Overall, I liked the series. But I’ve had some trouble writing about the flaws without being too negative. I eventually decided that rather than do a separate review for each book, I’d just review the series as a whole. This has made everything I wanted to say slightly easier to put on paper. And it’s probably more flattering to the series overall.
The Coldfire Trilogy makes for an interesting mix of genres. This is what drew me into reading it in the first place; I’m a fan of speculative fiction that bends or breaks the mould. At first glance, the setting and theme are very much in the style of high fantasy, but closer inspection reveals a science fiction scaffolding. This is then paired with a writing style that has a very gothic feel. (Think if Gothic Horror was written by Frank Herbert.)
In addition to the mix of styles, C.S. Friedman is also not averse to taking a few risks in her world-building, and it really pays off. The trilogy is based on the world of Erna, a planet where Earthen colonists were stranded in the distant past. Unfortunately, technology has regressed severely by the time the story starts. There are no more space shuttles, let alone cars. Instead, we’re back to medieval era technology. And this is where I think the author has been very clever. Have you ever wondered why so many fantasy-style stories seem stubbornly glued to a more primitive time, unable to progress? Friedman actually has an inventive reason for this to be the case on Erna. I won’t spoil it here, but I found her explanation quite satisfying and it integrates nicely with the rest of the storytelling.
The trilogy follows two main characters. At the start of the first book, Black Sun Rising, Damien Vryce is unquestionably a heroic protagonist. He’s a sort of warrior priest; an almost ‘Conan-The-Librarian’ type with a large sword. He also happens to be a sorcerer, which causes some conflict with the Catholic-style Church he serves.
Our other main character starts off as an anti-hero – and he would be the villain if there wasn’t a more malicious common antagonist bringing him and Vryce together. Gerald Tarrant was once a prophet for the same church Damien Vryce now serves. But hundreds of years earlier, after cutting a deal with demonic forces and indulging in a touch of familicide, Tarrant used sorcery to become a near-immortal being who feeds off the terror of his victims. He’s almost a vampire archetype; handsome, intellectual and seductive. He even has to avoid the sun.
And if you’re Vryce, you can add utterly insufferable to that list.
I really, really enjoyed reading about Tarrant. I really enjoyed that he grated on Vryce. Just everything about their dynamic was delightful. Vryce chips away at Tarrant’s defences, trying to find something of the humanity he had given up hundreds of years ago. And Tarrant? He has an uncomfortable way of needling Vryce about the Church and his faith. For each of them, something eventually has to give.
And that’s where we stand at the start of Black Sun Rising – we have some incredible world building and two compelling leads that share a tense relationship. So it becomes really frustrating to find that the plot of the first book turns out to be a typical fantasy quest! It’s episodic, with a bit of a flimsy premise. And while everything concerning Vryce and Tarrant is lovingly detailed, the side characters pale in comparison. Virtually no character development is thrown their way, and they feel very flat.
This is where I decided that I had to write about all three books in the series together. While the flaws in the first book are glaring, things start to improve as you get into the second book, When True Night Falls. Characters secondary to Vryce and Tarrant start getting more development, and the overreaching story starts to become more substantial. Critically, the main villain behind the antagonist from the first book gets built on, revealing something quite calculating, conniving and effective; capable of setting plans in motion that take decades to unfurl. This continues into the third book, Crown of Shadows, where all the plot points are pulled together in a quite gratifying way; reflecting the same kind of skill shown in the world building. I’d run the risk of spoiling the books if I go into too much detail, but I think the pay off is worth it.
(There is the matter of a romance subplot between a pair of fickle young things in the final book that I did roll my eyes at a bit, but it wasn’t overwhelming and plays a relevant role to the story)
Despite my issues with the first book, I enjoyed this series enough to start looking for C.S. Friedman’s other works. I think if you find the hybridisation of genres appealing, and you’re willing to be patient with the first book, it’s worth checking out The Coldfire Trilogy.