Black Sun Rising: Tarrant is the ultimate anti-hero

C.S. Friedman Coldfire Trilogy 1. Black Sun RisingBlack Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman

Refugees from Earth colonized the planet Erna some 1200 years ago. Excepting its extremely high seismic activity, Erna seemed a hospitable planet for mankind to call home. However, soon after our arrival a terrible threat was discovered. A natural force of energy called the fae animated the thoughts and emotions of all living things, so that our very nightmares could be brought to life. This almost destroyed us. Then, some humans figured out how to manipulate the fae to become sorcerers. A religion was created, too, based on the hope that faith would one day make mankind immune to fae manipulations. These two events kept the struggle against the fae at an uneasy stalemate for close to a millennium. But as human civilization has been developing, a dark force fed by the sorcerous uses of the fae has secretly grown in power to become a new and powerful threat.

Friedman’s plot is original and Black Sun Rising is a perfect example of science fantasy — the world of planet Erna is based on science and logic and the the fae magic is a natural force, like gravity. Another cool scientific element that enriches this world’s history and becomes a significant part of the story is Erna’s turbo-charged evolution. Where it takes thousands of years for a species to evolve particular characteristics on Earth, on Erna it takes only two or three generations. Almost immediately after we settle on Erna, mankind’s presence affects the evolution of its primitive life-forms. Imagine humans realizing this when they discover ape-like mammals that are evolving to become our competitors in settling the planet.

What fascinated me most about Black Sun Rising is the character of Gerald Tarrant. He’s the ultimate anti-hero in the truest sense of the word, like a combination of Count Dracula and Moorcock’s Elric. Even more than that, Tarrant is a unique concept. He was once the major prophet of Erna’s religion but then becomes its “Antichrist.” He commits horrendous acts of violence but his motivation is that these murderous acts grant him the power to live forever. For Tarrant, death means more than the end of his life; his afterlife will be eternity in the worst of hells. When faced with that alternative, it’s easy to sympathize with such a vile villain.

These good things noted, Black Sun Rising was a bit of an effort for me to complete. It might be a personal hang-up because I’m a big fan of descriptive writing, but I think Friedman really missed an opportunity. With a whole alien planet to work with, it could have been a world full of cities, creatures, and landscapes, as bizarre, terrible, or beautiful as her imagination could dream up. At times, Friedman does do this extremely well, but she chooses very few items to bring to life. The rest is just left flat. Because of this, some parts of the story seem to drag on and on, making it a challenge for me to get to the end.

So I really struggled with how to rate Black Sun Rising. Many readers would give it more stars than I did, and perhaps it deserves more. But I base my rating on how easy it is for me to escape into the author’s imaginary world and how much I enjoyed the trip. There are some truly great things about Black Sun Rising, and I’m still intrigued enough to try book two, When True Night Falls, eventually. But Black Sun Rising just didn’t quite get me there.

~Greg Hersom

Black Sun Rising by C.S. FriedmanBlack Sun Rising is the first novel in C.S. Friedman’s popular COLDFIRE trilogy. I read Dominion, the prequel novella, a couple of years ago after reading (and loving) several of her science fiction novels. I admire Friedman’s worldbuilding and her writing style.

The COLDFIRE trilogy feels like traditional epic fantasy, but it would best be categorized as science fantasy because it takes place in the far future on Erna, a planet colonized by humans looking for a habitable world. When they got to this world, they discovered that natural laws work differently. Some force, which they call the “Fae,” feeds on human fears and uses those “vibes” (my word) to influence evolution. This means, for example, that creatures that aren’t real, but that we fear, such as vampires and other monsters, can quickly evolve on Erna. (This is similar to the magic system in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and Lavondyss.) Also, the Fae interfere with human technology so that it’s nearly impossible for humans to control electricity, firearms, or other technological devices.

Some humans, called “adepts,” have learned to “work the Fae.” This works even better if they make some sort of personal sacrifice. Shortly after the humans arrived and began getting killed off by the monsters they dreamed into existence, one of them, on his own, decided to make a sacrifice for the colony by destroying their spaceship and its vast store of knowledge. Thus, the humans have essentially cast themselves back to a medieval culture, which is what makes these novels feel more like fantasy than science fiction. I found Friedman’s explanation for why human beings were living in a medieval society on a new planet to be completely believable.

In Dominion, we met Gerald Tarrant, an undead sorcerer who used to be the most devout and revered prophet of the One True God (essentially the Christian God) on Erna until, seeking power, he made a personal sacrifice that was so evil that it damned him to Hell. Now he is the most powerful human on Erna, but he fears death because he knows he’s damned. In order to stay alive, he had to become a vampire and must feed on human fear and blood. Thus, the man who used to be the holiest and most revered human on the planet has become the most evil and feared monster. This trade-off — the sacrifice Gerald makes in order to gain power and knowledge — is the theme of the trilogy and it produces some fascinating repercussions, ethical dilemmas, and thought exercises.

Not all of that information is laid out in Dominion, but we get enough of it to make us want to read on to find out what motivates Gerald Tarrant. In Black Sun Rising, he is called “The Hunter” and it is known that his minions scour the streets at night looking for pretty girls to bring to their master. We also meet Reverend Damian Vryce, a devout warrior priest of the One True God who wants to rescue his girlfriend, an adept who has been kidnapped by dark forces. Thinking that Gerald is the kidnapper, he enters Gerald’s forest (which we learned about in Dominion) and finds his castle. It turns out that Gerald isn’t the bad guy (this time) and the two join forces, along with a couple of others, and begin a quest to hunt down the real bad guy (or girl).

As you’d expect, Damien is not too happy about working with Gerald — he hates the man — but Gerald is the only person powerful enough to help him. Much of the tension in the story involves Damien’s conflicted feelings about working with and not against Gerald. Other tension stems from the hardships they endure on their quest. These involve several typical epic fantasy quest issues such as being attacked by minions of an evil sorcerer, enduring earthquakes, hiking across precarious cliffs, and tunneling through underground mines. Some of their adventures reminded me a little too much of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. There’s even a Boromir-type character and I kept thinking of the “Eye of Sauron” as they entered Mordor enemy territory. Yet despite these types of Tolkienesque plot elements, Friedman’s characters and the history of her world are completely unique and what I liked best about Black Sun Rising. I look forward to learning more and exploring more of Friedman’s world in book two, When True Night Falls.

I’m listening to the audio versions of the COLDFIRE trilogy. They’re produced by Audible Studios and are very nicely narrated by R.C. Bray. Black Sun Rising is 24 hours long.

~Kat Hooper

Published in 1991. The Coldfire trilogy tells a story of discovery and battle against evil on a planet where a force of nature exists that is capable of reshaping the world in response to psychic stimulus. This terrifying force, much like magic, has the power to prey upon the human mind, drawing forth a person’s worst nightmare images or most treasured dreams and indiscriminately giving them life. This is the story of two men: one, a warrior priest ready to sacrifice anything and everything for the cause of humanity’s progress; the other, a sorcerer who has survived for countless centuries by a total submission to evil. They are absolute enemies who must unite to conquer an evil greater than anything their world has ever known.

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GREG HERSOM’S (on FanLit's staff January 2008 -- September 2012) addiction began with his first Superboy comic at age four. He moved on to the hard-stuff in his early teens after acquiring all of Burroughs’s Tarzan books and the controversial L. Sprague de Camp & Carter edited Conan series. His favorite all time author is Robert E. Howard. Greg also admits that he’s a sucker for a well-illustrated cover — the likes of a Frazetta or a Royo. Greg live with his wife, son, and daughter in a small house owned by a dog and two cats in a Charlotte, NC suburb. He retired from FanLit in Septermber 2012 after 4.5 years of faithful service but he still sends us a review every once in a while.

View all posts by Greg Hersom (RETIRED)


  1. I am a huge Friedman fan. I love how she always seems to work with an antihero in her books. I agree, Terrant is THE antihero. He is one of my favorite characters in fantasy. Despite all of that, I agree with both the positive and negative points of your review. This book is great, but it could have been amazing!

  2. I agree with you about the uneasiness with this book. It is as frustrating as fascinating. I get the same feeling with every books of Friedman, always on the brink of amazing but never quite satisfactory. I never can wholly engage in her worlds.

  3. Thanks h-mb. :)
    Sarah, I have to admit I’m somewhat relieved to see that a Friedman fan agrees, because I really struggled with how many stars rate to this book. There is some really great stuff in it, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get bored. I thought it might be more of a personal thing, cause I like my action bloody and want to be able to picture the characters and setting in my head like I’m watching a movie. There are moments in this book that are like that, but it was very selective which can almost be worse -all or nothing I say.
    But Tarrant did really strike a chord with me. What he does in the prolog is one of those things that I personally have a very difficult time ever getting past with a character. But who can say what they would and wouldn’t do themselves to keep from dying if they know for a fact their soul to be damned to hell? I would think that knowledge would make being heroic to be very hard. And Tarrant still manages to have a limited code of honor he sticks to. He was very intriguing to me.

  4. Tarrant is my measuring stick for all antagonists. He’s amazing.

  5. I’d planned to read this.. your review has made me change my mind..

    To the Trade-A-Book these go…

  6. @Ruth- Exactly. A lot of books claim to have an anti-hero, but by definition, most really don’t. There is no denying that Tarrant is an anti-hero. Friedman deserves major creds for being able to pull-off creating a real anti-hero that readers can empathize with.
    Lagomorph Rex- I can see any fantasy reader going either way with this book, so I wouldn’t recommend to write-it-off. It depends on what you enjoy in fantasy or writing styles. (Maybe compare some other reviews of Black Sun Rising first or check some of my other reviews to see if we have the same tastes?)

  7. Well that is probably the smart thing to do, Greg. And I appreciate you being the voice of reason here.

    So I did go and look at your other reviews.. and now I’m even more confused than before. You gave 5 stars to Patrick Rothfuss (Which I thought was fantastic) and also to Joe Abercrombie (Who I chucked down in frustration with his characters).. You gave very high marks to David Gemmel, who I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in the past, Along with Robert E. Howard who is probably my second favorite author.. Other than Abercrombie we have fairly similar tastes. Though I might rate the Fritz Leiber Books a bit higher..

    I think mainly what did it, is just the way people are talking about the main character.. The Idea of Empathizing with the Villain is repellent to me.. (The Only person who’s ever managed it was Shakespeare with Richard III.. ) So if thats what the book requires in order to enjoy it.. then I don’t think I’d be able too anyway.

  8. Black Sun Rising is one of the most original plots and “magic” systems I’ve ever read. But I think what stands-out even more than that is the character of Gerald Tarrent. So if you have no interest in him, I would venture to say nothing else about the book is gonna appeal to you.
    I have to agree with what h-mb, says above; but for me it was to the extreme, this book was both extremely fascinating and extremely frustrating. While some things blew-me-away, others were very dull.

  9. Mist P /

    Great review. I have loved this book for years and I can totally see your point. I am a huge Gerald Tarrant fan. I was pulled in by him the first time I read it and the relationship that develops between Tarrant and Damien Vryce throughout the trilogy as they learn to work with and even trust each other has always been one of my favorites.

  10. Thank you Mist P.

    I’m glad that fans of Friedman or the Coldfire Trilogy, didn’t take offense. Because I did want it acknowledged that there are some really great things going on in this story, despite that it was a little slow for my taste.

  11. Sounds like a complex and intriguing set-up!

  12. This has been on my TBR forever, and I need to hurry up and read it. Thanks for the reminder, Kat!

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