Given some of the issues I'd had with the previous book, I approached When True Night Falls with a little trepidation. Right from the beginning however, it became clear that I was in for a very different experience.
This can be seen in the prologues of the two books. While Black Sun Rising began with a badly drawn attempt at tragedy that related only to one characters' back-story, When True Night Falls begins by reintroducing the hole world of Erna, showing the settlers just after the landing of their colony ship on the planet baffled by the energies later known as the Fae, confronting the manifestations of their own fears and desires and finding through one insane colonist's sacrifice that the superstitions once known as magic actually are a reality.
This gave the whole world a much more grounded, much more solid feeling that only continued as the main plot began.
After a review of the previous novel's events (albeit in a slightly contrived fashion), several aspects of Erna got solid introductions. Damien Vrice's church; referenced and vaguely seen previously, is revealed to be an effort to control the Fae through inspiring a faith in an omniscient creator god and a stable world where science and technology can develop free of alteration by people's unconscious desires, a nice twist on the usual relationship between science and religion. The existence of demons and "pagan gods", some of the history of the colonists, the different sorts of Fae and how they relate to humans all received a lot of clarification. Where in the first book Friedman seemed to want to create mystery for its own sake, in the second she seemed to want to immerse her reader completely in the world of Erna and all its workings, which, much as I did enjoy the previous mystery and exploration, was a refreshing change.
In style too, the book felt far more settled, while there were fewer over described passages, at the same time there were fewer forays into the language of overwrought emotion and clichéd phrases, which made the whole world and its characters feel much more believable and concrete, and for the books conflicts and emotional moments to be far more compelling.
One of the slightly more patchy aspects however was the plot and how characters were handled. It begins with Gerald Tarrant and Damien Vrice, accompanied by Hesseth (their Rakh guide from the previous book), crossing the eastern ocean to another continent. Their they find a society where the goal of Damien's church has been well achieved, a society with gun powder weapons and fireworks but one which maintains its control over the Fae with some rather dark practices like child sacrifice, and where a mysterious sorcerer, the Undying Prince is pulling the strings of a shadowy conspiracy.
Initially this setup promised a lot of interesting moments, Hesseth having to pose as human, Damien confronted with a church who nominally worshipped the same one God as his and actually had been successful at what the church was trying to achieve but at a terrible cost.
The problem however is very few of these conflicts were explored in detail. No sooner is the society established than Damien and co swan off into the wilderness, and we're forced to slog through a good bit of basic travel narrative (not really that different to the previous journey through the Rakh lands), that seemed to serve little purpose or involve much conflict other than a pursuit so vague I wasn't even sure who was behind it.
I was very disappointed that Hesseth, who had basically served as nothing but a walking anthropology text book in the previous novel didn't acquire more character once we reached the human society that would be alien to her, indeed to say a large scene was spent making the furred Rakh appear human it was a little pointless given how quickly she joined Damien on their camping trip in the wilds, neither did we learn more of her own Rakh culture or personal history, indeed a later comment by Damien that he didn't enquire about her past due to some misplaced belief in privacy seemed almost like Friedman admitting her own short falls with under using such a potentially fascinating character. Similarly, Friedman's habit of casually tossing off relationships for Damien Vrice also unfortunately reappeared (for a man of the cloth he seems quite prone to quick flings), with a relationship with one of the ship's crew mentioned as background to their sea voyage in a single scene and then never appearing again.
I was thus growing rather pessimistic being as the book seemed to have stalled, until quite suddenly, almost as if a switch were pulled I found things picking up. This began with the introduction of The Undying Prince as an antagonist, who had a far more awesome and unique presence than the previous book's villain, especially in his interactions with the ever devious Tarrant. I also liked the fact that the landscape and dangers got ever more alien and unique, for example Damien and co having to overcome a group of savage, war painted jungle living children who had escaped child sacrifice at the hands of the Eastern Church and who seemed to be a nod to William Golding's Lord of the Flies, or eco systems created out of the manipulation of the Fae with specific (and often deadly), purposes. Damien's conflict with Tarrant also took on new dimensions especially with the contrast of the eastern Church's immoral practices and the "end justifies the means" philosophy contrasted against Tarrant's own need to pray upon fear to survive, indeed even Tarrant's penchant for the fear of delicate young women was not half so prominent as simply the fact of his using others to prolong his own life and what the consequences for him might be if that life did end.
One thing I did not appreciate was the introduction of a new character Jenseny, a twelve year old girl whose father was killed by the Undying Prince's servants who has the ability to see tidal Fae. This was because Jenseny's introduction saw reappearance both of the poetic descriptions of the Fae and Jenseny's experience of it, but also Friedman's tendency to histrionics. The potentially interesting Hesseth's one purpose in the book suddenly came to be as Jenseny's surrogate mother, Friedman far too often used overwrought phrasing such as talking about "her fragile little soul" when discussing Jenseny, and even from her own perspective, other than grieving her father, sensing tidal Fae and being afraid most of the time Jenseny had little to no personality. While I did rather like the way Damien as the eternal nice guy he managed to quell any potential fears Jenseny had of the eastern Church's child sacrificing priest hood, at the same time even this character moment is over far too quickly to make an impact and is also accomplished with much too much sermonizing on Jenseny's innocence and vulnerability. This overheated style also made it slightly difficult to pull the genuinely heart wrenching moments of Jenseny's story, such as her grieving for her father from the mix, although to Friedman's credit I will say there were a few times that Jenseny did actually manage to overcome cliché and engage my emotions unlike Ciani from the first book, though she still over shot far more than she hit the mark.
Despite my irritation both with Jenseny and the lack of uses of Hesseth however, the latter half of the book and the final conflict with the Undying Prince were indeed highly epic, particularly because I wasn't sure who would come out of it alive.
The Prince was a charming and wily antagonist, pulling the strings of a vast conspiracy from his colourfully described and monster filled citadel in the middle of his own black land.
While I am not convinced by the way Friedman handles several standard fantasy tropes in her work, with the Prince's introduction only part way through the novel and the amount of time spent on the conflict with him, Friedman does very much succeed in showing the dark lord who really doesn't need to care about what the heroes do when he has them captive since he is so invincible, indeed I found it notable that despite her tendency to over dramatize elsewhere, when Friedman actually put her characters into truly hopeless situations her writing did rise to the challenge, making for some very tense and quite truly tragic moments.
I'll also say that even more so than with the previous volume, the ending took me by surprise and shows that Friedman is not quite as fluffy a romantic as I might have thought. She also manages to reveal some of the elements of the final novel, the real power behind the Prince's throne and end with a potential conflict and a set of revelations that mean I'm very eager to go on to finish the trilogy.
When True Night Falls is largely a major improvement on the first book. Despite some pacing issues and under used characters, a far more grounded world, a well rounded antagonist and what was for the most part a less flighty style made this a much richer and more complete experience, which bodes well for the final instalment.
Review by Dark
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