Today, I’ll be talking about an underrated Science-Fantasy series by C.S. Friedman, The Coldfire Trilogy. Every so often, I’ll find myself in a bookstore holding a book I might have started decades ago, or at least wanted to read, and so it was with the second book, When True Night Falls. I’m not even sure I knew at the time that it was the middle book of a trilogy; the title, the cover, and the back copy caught my imagination shortly after it was published, and it stayed with me for years, even though I wound up leaving it on the shelf. (I probably wanted to read more Joan Vinge or Mercedes Lackey or Clive Barker, authors I was nearly obsessed with then and still read, from time to time.) Years later, I found the book in a flea market in Jacksonville, and decided that I really had no reason not to read it. And now, I’m writing this article to tell you that you really have no reason not to, either.
Celia S. Friedman is perhaps best known for this trilogy, though she won an award for This Alien Shore in the late 80s, and every fantasy bookstore I went to in the 90s had at least some of her books on the shelf. She also has quite a presence on Quora, where she answers questions about books, language, and cats, and she’s also written source books and novellas for the RPG Vampire: The Masquerade. I haven’t read anything else of hers besides this trilogy, and now, I’m a little afraid to do so. On the one hand, her other books could be inferior, and I’ll be disappointed. Maybe I’ll only be a tiny bit disappointed, but I’ll still feel it. On the other hand, her other books could be even better than “Coldfire” and that will make my head explode. It is quite a quandary, I’m afraid.
The premise of this trilogy is laid out in chilling detail in the first book, Black Sun Rising, and expanded upon in layers throughout the trilogy. Erna is a world colonized by Earth after untold years in space looking for a suitable place to settle. The planet seemed to be a lush paradise when they landed, but soon after, they learned that the it possessed its own energy, a force they called ‘Fae’ after the old Earth legends. This energy could pick details out of your brain and cause them to manifest in front of you, and much like the island where dreams come true in C.S. Lewis’s excellent The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader,’ this is the most horrifying thing that could ever happen to people, with their deep and barely-known subconscious producing all manner of horrors. Technology rarely works, because even a tiny doubt that something will go wrong will interact with the Fae and cause it to break down or work erratically. Soon, the population reverts to something of a mix of Medieval technology and modern culture, where the Church and various pagan temples interact with the Fae to keep people safe. Some people even learn to work the Fae creatively.
There are several things that struck me about this trilogy. First and foremost are the two main characters: a warrior-priest who can work the Fae to an extent (usually for healing) and who struggles with the necessity of working with a man the Church considers abhorrent and repellent, the living face of evil. This other character is perhaps one of the best-written, most convincingly-written villains I’ve come across. It’s not uncommon to see the trope of an evil man who realizes there’s a greater evil than him in the world and decides to throw in his lot with the ‘good guys.’ However, this character does not end there. Throughout the trilogy, he remains evil, even as he mostly does good in their quest. He is most definitely NOT a vampire who gives up his vampire nature to be able to play well with others, and there are several spots in the book where his mission is nearly scuttled because he can’t get rid of that side of himself. Even if I hadn’t been taking notes on him in order to round out an antagonist in my own Work-In-Progress, I would have enjoyed reading about him, and I’m pretty sure my inevitable reread will be because of him, and his relationship with the other characters.
The supporting characters as well are just as well-rounded and flush with detail as the protagonists, and at least one character’s death made me set the book down and walk for a bit before I could bring myself to pick it up. I’m more sensitive to characters than plot as it is, so a book filled with convincing characters is a treasure to me. There are very few ‘types’ in this book as well; even characters that are the same on the surface are individual and unique in the way they speak and act.
The other thing that struck me was the use of religion and faith as real forces in the world. Most fantasy novels have two distinct groups: the ones who use magic from the environment and the ones who receive their magic from the gods. In these books, however, the priests are able to control aspects of the Fae because of their strong faith and belief that they can, and indeed, religion as a whole functions this way throughout the books. A lot is made of the ethical question of whether one can use a flawed or evil tool for a good cause, and while there are a few good answers to this in the end, it’s clear that these aren’t the only answers. I’m certain I’ll be thinking about the third book, Crown of Shadows (the best in the trilogy) for years to come.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this trilogy to anyone who likes thoughtful fantasy with a believable, almost scientific premise to its wonders and magic. I will warn you that some parts, especially in the third book, can get rather dark, but it never comes close to ‘grimdark’ standards, and there is most definitely a stunning and satisfying conclusion. (At the risk of giving a spoiler, I’ll also say that I was pleased that she followed up on the climax and its implications until I was full and ready to say goodbye to them. That is not always the case in fantasy novels.) There are a few slow spots, especially in the middle of the first two books, but the story and the details of her setting are worth all the time I spent within the pages. Highly recommended.
Black Sun Rising — 4 stars
When True Night Falls — 4 stars
Crown of Shadows — 5 stars