Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Black Sun Rising, by C.S. Friedman [2]

**/***** (2/5)

Coldfire Trilogy
1. Black Sun Rising (1991) **
2. When True Night Falls (1993)
3. Crown of Shadows (1995)

Although I laud C.S. Friedman's efforts, I was mostly bored and annoyed by her first installment in the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) Coldfire trilogy published back in 1991, BLACK SUN RISING. Considered by many in the SFF community as a classic, I thought this book amounted to little more than repetitive emotional introspection in the improbable journey of "friendship" between the "Hunter" Gerald Tarrant and Reverend Damien Kilcannon Vryce. Basically, it's a thought experiment in the unlikely teamwork and camaraderie between Evil Incarnate and Wholesome Good symbolized by Tarrant and Vryce, respectively. With the possible exception of the rakh-woman Hasseth, I disliked all the characters here. I had no stake in any of the characters and the book's efforts to endear the evil Tarrant failed miserably. In many books, you hope certain characters will survive, but here, I found myself wishing all of the main characters would keel over and die (Tarrant, Vryce, Ciani). Characterizations here are fairly weak in general, I've read more compelling characterizations in children's fairy tales. But alas, the story isn't interested in characters or plots, it chronicles a journey partnering good with evil to defeat another evil. Despite a decided dearth of plots and characters, BLACK SUN RISING contains rather intriguing elements of mystery and horror, and crafts a very eerie and rich setting. When the book isn't indulging in rather repetitive introspection, the prose is actually good.

From the very first page to the last, BLACK SUN RISING belongs to its evil protagonist hero Gerald Tarrant. Tarrant represents the biggest mover and shaker in the story and Friedman credits his presence and powers in Reverend Damien Vryce's every waking (and dreaming) thought. Tarrant is involved in or responsible for every twist, turn and plot. Our narrator the Reverend Damien Vryce serves as the reader's eyes and ears into Tarrant and even during the climax, Vryce acts as a conduit to facilitate Tarrant. We're told many times that Vryce is accomplished with his sword, but he does little with it and the climactic denouement resorts to vague and ambiguous powers of the mind between Tarrant and the Master of Lema. Certainly, writing sword fights isn't one of Friedman's strengths. In many ways, BLACK SUN RISING (1991) reminded me of Kay's TIGANA (1990), much more so than another book I read recently: Rawn's DRAGON PRINCE. Both BLACK SUN RISING (through Tarrant) and TIGANA (via the sorcerer Brandin) wish to portray the good in evil rather than tell an engaging story with interesting characters. Certainly not the first book to repudiate black-and-white fantasy and examine dark characters, it was nonetheless fad to make evil cool in the early 90s. Matthew Woodring Stover's HEROES DIE (*****) depicted a much more compelling case if you're interested in the "coolness" of evil and ruthlessness with enthralling characterizations and plots.

My biggest gripe with the novel: Vryce muses and thinks about Tarrant endlessly and repetitively. Whether Vryce is jealous of Tarrant because of Ciani (more than once), or calls Tarrant a bastard in his thoughts for thinking or doing something he (Vryce) is ashamed of as a priest (again and again), clearly the book wants to interminably drum out Vryce's evolving view of the apparently evil Tarrant. It's funny, only female authors care about a character's thoughts as much as C.S. Friedman spends time on Vryce's rather aggravating and repetitive introspection over Tarrant. And although I had no idea C.S. Friedman was a woman before I read this, I knew from reading the prologue and first chapter that the author is, without a doubt, female. Many times, Vryce's paradoxical and evolving view of Tarrant seemed exactly like a romance heroine's love-hate relationship with the tall, aristocratic and handsome hero. Tarrant certainly qualifies as the stereotypical tall, dark and handsome hero possessing the the requisite trimmings of corruption, arrogance and high-handedness. So what if Tarrant murdered his wife and children and kills thousands of innocents for his sustenance, he's not all that bad! Consider also these all too convenient cop-outs: Tarrant abstaining from feeding on innocents for a period of time and then, in the epilogue, all of sudden the book mentions how his "feeding" precludes sexual congress. All to make him seem redeemed and good.

The plotting which compels our narrator Damien Vryce to travel to the rakhlands seemed totally unwarranted. We're told Vryce makes the journey to help Ciani regain her memories and abilities as an adept (basically a human born to magic) because he loves her. But since Ciani fails to return the overwhelming love and devotion Vryce shows for her, I was mostly disgusted by Vryce's reasons to make the perilous journey. Tell us he's making the journey because of adventure, or to eliminate great threat to the planet Erna, but please don't give me bull about love. Damien Vryce at least deserved getting laid for all his trouble, lord! Damien is constantly there to support Ciani with an arm-around-the-shoulder, or encourage her dispirited state with words, or travel to the imposing Forest and rescue her when Tarrant kidnaps her. Vryce is consistently jealous of any man close to Ciani (mostly Tarrant and Senzei), thinks he cares for her and loves her, blah, blah, blah. Since Ciani fails to reciprocate even a fraction of Damien Vryce's affection, I was rolling my eyes at Vryce's resolve to hunt down Ciani's attacker and travel to the rakhlands all in the name of love. Please, Ciani astutely manipulates all three men on the journey: Tarrant's honor-bound words not to harm her, Damien's love for her, and Senzei's hunger for greater power (Sight). It's not like she doesn't remember in general, she harbors no physical strain from the attack on her, so the impetus to travel to dangerous lands and restore something vague and ambiguous to her (her "adeptitude") was lost on me. If she really cared for Senzei or Damien in any way, she would tell them not to risk so much for something so selfish (power, ability to Work the Fae, Fae memories). Despite Ciani constantly whispering or meekly vocalizing words, she skillfully exploits all three men: their ambitions, desires and honor, all of her sake.

Premise and plot, possible SPOILERS.

The prologue and settings in the early chapters instantly capture the reader's interest. In a scene of horror, the prologue treats readers to the Neocount of Merentha, the Prophet, sacrificing his wife and children for greater power and immortality. On the fictional planet of Erna (presumably Earth's sister planet), there exists Fae, a powerful energy field incipient throughout the planet. The Fae are sensitive to the human psyche and manifest humans' fear in the form of demons and monsters, much to the humankind's dismay. Whereas the religious institution in this world (the Church, Holy Father) wishes to render the human psyche unable to impact Erna's Fae, the Church's Prophet on the other hand is an adept, and like all adepts, he's born with the ability to manipulate Fae. During his Sacrifice in the prologue, the Prophet will prove both the Church's salvation and damnation at the same time. Another paradoxical dichotomy in the vein of many SFF written to show the good in evil, the evil in good, and blur the lines of distinction between the two. Fusing science fiction and fantasy elements, human survivors of planet Earth colonized the fantastical planet Erna and struggled to live with its sensitive Fae.

In the city Jaggonath, when mysterious creatures strip the adept Ciani's ability to Work the Fae, the Reverend Damien Vryce, Ciani's friend Senzei Reese and Ciani embark on a journey to chase these creatures into the dangerous rakhlands and kill Ciani's attacker thereby returning Ciani's memories of her "adeptitude." The mysterious creatures strangely reminded me of the slake-moths in China Mieville's PERDIDO STREET STATION. There's nothing more horrifying than stripping a thinking, reasoning and experienced person of one's memories. Angst-ridden passages from Damien's perspective proclaiming his love for Ciani when she obviously fails to return even a fraction of his love and devotion grate the nerves. Along the way, more companions join Damien, Ciani and Senzei on their journey, most notable among them the adept Gerald Tarrant. Eventually the narrative shifts to the unlikely yet burgeoning camaraderie between Tarrant and Damien, Damien's conflicting view of Tarrant (Damien strangely finds comfort in Tarrant's powerful, dark presence, yet feels ashamed for it because he's supposed to be a priest). Just like some romance heroine sulking over a tall, dark and handsome hero. This emotional introspection from Damien highlighting his relationship with Tarrant comprises the bulk of the novel and the "point" of it all, such as it is. Damien reasons he needs evil to fight evil, and grows fond of Tarrant, even calling Tarrant a bastard obviously because Damien enjoys the reassurance of Tarrant's presence. Just like serving as our eyes and ears into Tarrant, Damien serves as a conduit for Tarrant to attack the main antagonist of this particular novel, the Master of Lema. The Master of Lema mysteriously harnesses power at the hub of Erna's frequent earthquake activity in the rakhlands. I failed to see a big difference between the Master of Lema and our supposedly redeemed Gerald Tarrant. Both use and kill innocents, so what really makes the Master of Lema the greater threat? The book says whereas Tarrant harbors some semblance of honor and sanity, the Master of Lema has gone insane in a lust for greater and greater power. I don't see it, both require innocent 'sacrifices' to sustain themselves, why is one morally wrong (the Master of Lema), the other forgivable (Tarrant)? By the way, I love how Tarrant's power keeps him tall and handsome, whereas the Master of Lema's appearance has withered. Does that mean: evil men = cool, evil women = bad?

In any case, improbable companions journey to a dangerous and forbidden land. The enemy (Master of Lema) wants the adepts to feed off their power (Ciani and Tarrant), and their journey into the rakhlands bring the enemy the very thing the enemy covets (Ciani and Tarrant). If that doesn't sound like another version of Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS, I don't know what does. The events are predictable, boring and annoying at the same time. I didn't care about any of the characters, I was annoyed by Damien's angst-ridden introspection of Tarrant, and in spite of my fondest hopes, nobody major died.

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