Time for the second installment of The Completist, wherein I take a look at those SFF series which have concluded publication. In this installment, I take a look at a series which is over twenty years old and has remained in print an on the shelves since. Let’s have a look at C.S. Friedman’s dark fantastic saga, The Coldfire Trilogy.
After publishing two well-received far future SF novels (The Madness Season and In Conquest Born), Celia S. Friedman (better known by the name on her books as C.S. Friedman) turned her storytelling lens to something a bit different – a dark fantasy trilogy that still owes a debt to the Science Fictional roots of her first two novels. When Black Sun Rising published in 1991 with that gorgeous Michael Whelan cover, the Coldfire Trilogy had begun. The trilogy is a seamless blend of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Although the story takes place on a world – Erna – colonized by humans in the far future more than 1,000 years prior to the events of the novel, little of that comes through in the present of the novels; the world operates, and people manipulate the world, more through supernatural/fantasy elements rather than technology and science. This fantastical element is The Fae and wraps the entire world, working off of people’s thoughts and emotions. The Fae manifests a person’s fears and it was only through a erosion of technology that humanity was able to reach a balance with Fae. All of this informs the world and how the characters move through the plot.
The first novel, Black Sun Rising, introduces our primary character – a priest of the Church of Human Unification, Damian Vryce, who is tasked with assisting the Church with teaching initiates of the uses of Fae manipulation. He meets Ciani, an Adept (people who can sense the Fae) in the city of Jaggonath. A mutual attraction develops between Ciani and Damien; however Ciani’s shop is destroyed in an explosion, leaving her wounded thanks to demonic creatures that have sapped her will and memories. As a result, Vryce puts her salvation ahead of his church-appointed task.
On their journey, they come across the character for which this series might be best known – Gerald Tarrant. Tarrant is many things: snarky, a sociopath, a liar, a murderer, a martyr…but altogether he is an extremely fascinating character. He has lived for 900 years and his alias, “The Hunter”, is an infamous myth/legend of darkness and fear. The description of his appearance as well as other attributes lend a vampiric air to him. Through much of their journey, he and Damien butt heads, mainly because of Damien’s primary problem with The Hunter is that he epitomizes everything for which the Church stands against. On one hand, Tarrant provided assistance; on the other, his very nature requires the church-bound Damien to destroy the human embodiment of the Church’s evil.
The traveling companions, including Hesseth, who can communicate with the rakh, enter the Rakhlands, after first passing through a fluctuating supernatural gate. The Rakhlands, as one might surmise, are inhabited by the Rakh, a species native to Erna possessing a blending of human and feline attributes, that holds great contempt for humans. The companions seek to defeat the Keeper of Souls, a sorcerer who sent the demonic creatures to Ciani’s shop to gather Ciani’s soul.
Much of the novel is a travelogue through dark and fantastic lands and ends when Damien and Tarrant return, much changed after their encounter with the Keeper of Souls, to the human lands from whence he came.
The second novel, When True Night Falls, charts a different journey, though the players of Damien, Hesseth, and Tarrant remain. The prologue illuminating the past of Erna precedes the main story of the novel, revealing that Erna is a planet colonized by humans from Earth centuries prior to the events of the trilogy. At the time, this was an inventive twist on the genre, placing what was thought to be a fantasy setting/story in the future of humanity. Granted, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth has a fantasy feel to it, but it is explicitly set on our world in the far future.
Our dark fantasy buddies chart a course to the mysterious Eastern Continent where technology is more advanced than on the Western continent, where Vryce and Tarrant have lived their lives. The Church on this continent is run by women who are actually disguised demonic rakh encountered in the Black Sun Rising. They discover the source of the corruption (the Prince and his demonic servant Calesta) while also discovering an imprisoned girl named Jenseny.
Throughout the novel, Tarrant, Vryce, and Jenseny try to put an end to the Prince’s corruption but difficulties include the Prince’s ability to shift bodies and his overwhelming control of every facet of the land. Demonic beasts and bone-like sentient trees do his bidding and thwart our protagonists at every turn. The novel’s conclusion brings Tarrant more into the heroic spotlight, further cementing his appeal as a dark protagonist/anti-hero.
The final volume, Crown of Shadows, introduces something unexpected – Andrys Tarrant, lone surviving human of the Tarrant bloodline who appears nearly identical to Gerald. Andrys has allied with the Patriarch of the Church seeking vengeance on his father since dear old dad killed the entire family in a grab for power. The other conflict in this novel is a carryover from When True Night Falls as the demonic (called here by Friedman Iezu) Calesta becomes the primary antagonist. Tarrant is finally given an ultimatum by Damien’s church, find an alternate method of sustaining his immortality or they will destroy him. Damien’s moral, personal problems with the Church of Human Unification come to head as the novel and trilogy come to a close.
These novels really stood out to me at the time I read them, over a decade ago now. Initially published in the early 1990s when much of the fantasy on the shelves had a clearer delineation between good and evil, The Coldfire Trilogy walks that tightrope with the character of Gerald Tarrant. He possesses an air of nobility, but he’s done things that would turn any normal person’s soul into knots. Though different in some respects as an Anti-hero from characters like Matthew Stover’s Caine/Hari Michaelson, Joe Abercrombie’s varied characters or Mark Lawrence’s Jorg Ancrath, Tarrant could be seen as a spiritual predecessor to those characters.
Friedman precedes each of the three novels with a brief prologue. In Black Sun Rising, a woman returns to her castle to find her children huddling in death, only to be brutally murdered herself. As we later learn, this is the sacrifice that transformed Gerald Tarrant. Not a cheery scene, but it sets the underlying tone of dread for the book and series itself. The prologue for When True Night Falls recounts an early encounter between Colonists from Earth and the forces that dominate Erna, firmly establishing the Science Fictional nature of the story. These two prologues; however, evoke more of a horror feel than SF or even Fantasy. The prologue to Crown of Shadows reveals that not all of Tarrant’s family was murdered in the sacrifice introducing Andrys Tarrant, the man whose lust for revenge drives the novel.
Part of what initially caught my fancy with these books are the iconic covers by Michael Whelan, whose art has graced many a book from the fine folks at DAW. Thematically, the three covers are very similar with a figure in the center standing against a fantastical landscape, surrounded by bizarre trees. I think these covers are some of Whelan’s best work.
Admittedly, some of my fondness for this series could be related to the time frame when I read the books. When my wife and I got married, we honeymooned in Hawaii and these books accompanied me for the long plane ride. That having been said, the darkness and horror element of the story combined with the science fictional framework in this trilogy adds a depth to the Epic Fantasy / Quest narrative. Nearly a decade and a half after initially reading these three books, the unique feel of the world and conflict of the characters remains strongly entrenched in my memories. The Coldfire Trilogy has remained in print and on the shelves since initial publication twenty years ago, proving that it has connected with and continues to connect with a great many readers.