Black Sun Rising by Celia Friedman

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Rating 6.7/10
Overwrought style and slightly traditional characters.

I was recommended CS Friedman by a friend, and when I learnt the premise and setting of Black Sun Rising I was more than eager to explore its world. Like Anne McCaffrey's Dragon Riders or Robert Silverberg's Majipoor, Black Sun Rising is a book which really defies classification as fantasy or science fiction.

The book takes place far in the future on the Earth colony world of Erna, a world suffused with a natural energy known as the Fae.

Since the Fae react to emotions and desires, this means that Friedman has created a world with many of the staples of fantasy, a society who treat magic as common place, where wards to guard against night spawned demons of the imagination are as natural as wearing a rain coat, but a world with a scientific history, indeed one of the major institutions referenced in the book is a monotheistic church seeking to bring back the physical sciences of Earth.

The way Friedman plays with the concept of the Fae and its affect on the lives and world of the people of Erna is really quite unique. The none human race The Rakh for instance are creatures who, because of the original colonists' belief that they would eventually evolve as the major intelligent species on Erna in several thousand years, in fact have done that in a matter of centuries and now have their own society and customs.

This alien quality to the world is also highlighted by the fact that Friedman gives the reader no foothold or easy explanation, just throwing terms like "Fae maps", and references to a "revivalist movement" casually into the text and expecting the reader to catch up. To some this might have been off-putting, though for myself it made the world all the more interesting to explore.

One thing which was however less easy to stomach is Friedman's prose style. Her descriptive language veered wildly between deeply mysterious verging on the poetic (especially when describing the fae), and down right sensationalist, one might almost say overblown. My friend did comment that she had heard Friedman’s' style dismissed as "chick lit" previously, and while I wouldn't agree with that description I can understand where such a label might come from. There was also no break between those styles, so a wonderfully colourful description of the delicate eddies and currents and flows of the night fae blowing in the wind and starlight would suddenly be interrupted by a highly clichéd phrase such as "the seductive beauty and horror of the night" which was extremely jarring.
I also found this same tendency to over dramatize affected Friedman’s plot and characters as well. The book begins with a prologue which was as much a woman's long sermon of praise for her oh so good and glorious and talented and handsome and wonderful husband (I felt rather relieved when something bad happened to her), as a serious introduction to the world or major themes of the plot.

Similarly the characters in the main story all seem drawn from specific moulds, Damien the manly stubborn and faithful warrior priest, Senzei the young apprentice eager to learn, and Gerald Tarrant, a dark sorcerer who literally feeds on the terror and vulnerability of young women in best Bram Stoker tradition. It also didn't help that for a considerable part of the book Ciani, the single female main character first begins a casual courtship with one of the men, then suffers a traumatic attack and spent the entire rest of the book clinging on to one or other of the male characters sobbing for protection, despite the fact that she is supposedly an adept, a knowledgeable and skilled fae user in her own right. Her characterization suffered slightly due to Friedman's habit of skipping over scenes of dialogue (especially in terms of relations between characters) at the beginning of the book, Ciani's romance is so cursory and filled with descriptions of what people feel rather than actual dialogue it felt more like a decorative bit of usual window dressing than a serious attempt to show the emotional lives of two of her characters.

Part way into the book therefore I had dismissed Black Sun Rising as an interesting but poorly executed premise, a unique idea by an author with some degree of linguistic flare but one plagued by adherence to standard (and more than a little sexist) character archetypes. However I found that as the plot progressed, I was more and more often being surprised and wrong footed, and what I expected from the seemingly  standard characters was more and more frequently not what happened.

This sense of being nudged out of expected patterns increased as I progressed through the novel, both in terms of small throw away little ideas surrounding Erna and the world of the Fae, and in terms of character interactions, with Damien proving not quite the ultimately stubborn priest, and Tarrant to possess depths that went far beyond his dark enchanter roll.

I was actually shocked at some of the steps Friedman went to with her characters, and was very pleased to find that despite what I thought were fairly clichéd rolls Friedman doesn't subscribe to the idea that nothing bad should happen to her principle cast.
As the plot progressed, what I thought were initially simple scenes with no point but displaying a fairly standard side to one of her main characters through a disposable miner viewpoint (and usually a rather sexist one), had far more prominence than I initially thought. Scenes such as the dark sorcerer Tarrant impressing a gauche and delicate young girl with his oh so seductive dark beauty, actually came back to serve distinct purposes later, and thus my initial dismissing of such as simple steps into melodrama was incorrect.

Sadly, with Ciani this deviation from expectations did not happen and I confess I found her continued state of seemingly enforced helplessness a trifle irritating, however I will admit that Black Sun Rising was a book that really did surprise me, and one where there was definitely some depth beneath the sometimes tawdry trappings.

The plot did clip along at a good pace, for all that sometimes the prose style and lack of character made it feel longer, and Friedman left more than enough threads dangling to explore in the second book, indeed while the main villain was defeated in a somewhat cursory fashion, Friedman's foreshadowing that the powers the villain used were the most important matter was very nicely done and definitely has me eager to find out more in the next volume.

I'd therefore advise anyone planning on reading Black Sun Rising to persevere, since this one certainly has more to offer than it might initially appear, and not to dismiss the book despite its at times rather overwrought style and slightly traditional characters.

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