Black Sun Rising by C S Friedman

I have this thing for fancy covers. For a long time I have been attracted by the cover design and title of this book. Otherwise I have never heard the name C S Friedman mentioned on any fantasy lists nor recommended by any of my friends. After I started reading the book, I googled the name and was surprised to find she is a woman - the name somehow seemed like a male one to me. Probably that was the intent on the author's part as well. Somehow in genres other than romance, there still seems to be certain bias against woman writers that they try to overcome by putting their surnames with initials to hide their gender.

I somehow have a thing for quest based fantasy. For me, the thing that attracts me to fantasy is the wonder of discovering a new world. The best way to discover a new world is a travel and so quests are best. Here we have a sorceress whose memories have been stolen by demons. Her apprentice, a man without the talent and a priest go in search of the demon to recover her memory. They are joined in their quest by an ancient vampire and later by a wonder woman from an alien race, complete with a dangerous stead.

The world is quite an interesting one. The story is set in future in an alien word that humans have migrated to. The alien world has a life of its own that reacts to human thoughts and emotions. So through interaction with these beings called Fae, humans have learnt to perform magical feats. There is this usual theme of magic as a substitute for science. Most of the technology of the world is around manipulation of the Fae through mind tricks to produce the desired results, many of which beyond the realms of possibility of known science. Then there is an alien race called Rakh which has been evolving from its primeval state into a more intelligent species through interaction with humans over millennia. And last but not the least demons which are probably Fae elements brought to life through strong human imagination that have begun to have an independent existence of their own.

The book is 585 pages long and the entire story is about how the five travelers meet up, interact, travel through the land and how they find and defeat their antagonists to recover the memories of the sorceress Ciani. So one of the elements in quests is how the people work together to overcome various obstacles. Some are simple logistical ones like boatmen refusing to ferry them across or local tribes refusing them passage. Of course the tension will be lost if antagonists are not hot on their trail all the time. So we have regular brushes with the minions of the antagonists as well as some obscure glimpses into their diabolic scheming to keep the reader aware of the sinister presence of the antagonist. Last but not the least, we have conflicts within the group and mental demons of the characters. When you have a vampire and a priest in the same group, that is an obvious tension point which the author skillfully exploits. We have a woman put with three men - so obviously we have some romantic interest. There is jealousy but no love triangle as such. Then we have the priest's theological conflicts.The apprentice struggles with self esteem issues due to his lack of innate magic talent which eventually proves to be his undoing.

The narrative is  a third person point of view jumping from the mind of one character to another across the chapters enmeshed with descriptive omniscient third person. She sometimes even takes the point of view of insignificant characters to generally build mystery about the overall environment. The author displays strength of language in the descriptive portions. You know you can say things in an ordinary way or rich with metaphor. I somehow still have not fully got this show versus tell concept though. The way I see it, if you stick to character's perceptions, it will be show. But then character's perceptions won't be descriptive. Sample this - "Dusk. A swollen sallow sunset. Dust strewn across a barren landscape, naked hills swelling lifeless in the distance. Sharp cracks that split the air: rhythmic like a drum beat. Death." Now what do I make of this. The language is beautiful but is this a show or tell and what type of narrative is this. Or let us try a different one - "The port called Kale was as unlike Jaggonath as any place possibly could be.The city's plan was a veritable maze of narrow, twisting streets, flanked by houses that had been hurriedly built and for the most part, poorly maintained. Rich and poor were quartered side by side, laborers' hovels leaning against the thick stone walls of the rich man's estate - barbed iron spikes adorning the top , to discourage the curiosity of strangers - which was flanked in turn by the mildewed shells of workhouses,  the miserly confines of tenement flats, the iron clad husks of massive sheds. The streets themselves might once have been paved with stones, and occasionally a flat slab of shallite - deep green, or slate grey or midnight black - would peak out beneath the layers of mud and debris and animal droppings which seemed to coat everything in sight. The whole place smelled:  of damp, of dung, of decay. But there was commerce here, enough to support thousands. And where trade flourished , humankind invariably congregated."    

From here on, there may be spoilers. So reading with caution recommended.

By and large the plot seemed fine and suspension of disbelief came easily. However a couple of things jarred a bit.  In the prologue, we see the great prophet performing a heinous sacrifice for some greater goal. But centuries later, he no longer seems to have any greater goal except surviving which does not seem very consistent. Then there is a great mystery about the antagonist being built up and then towards the end, we don't even get to see her properly and she is quickly dispatched off. I found that a bit disappointing.  The biggest problem was how the all knowing vampire just came up with answers to their problems without the struggles of working through the problems. While the vampire had physical vulnerabilities, he seemed to be given a free reign in the intellectual domain.

The pacing was taut. But a few things felt unnecessary. For instance the character of the head of the local church is built up strongly only to be cast aside with no significant role in the story. Similarly there is lot of mystery built around the Rakh woman. But she enters the party quite tamely and doesn't play that significant a role. The intrigue around the identity of the Hunter, which the author builds up as a great mystery, is so predictable.

The title was another let down. In the end, it turns out that the title which seemed to be potent with possibilities, had no significance to the story at all.

By and large, an interesting book that can be read for the work building concept. I don't know if I will pick up the second book in the series to find the answers to the loose threads. Very often I have found science fiction and fantasy books run through book after book offering only cheap thrills, never unfogging the central mysteries of the world it is based on. I somehow suspect this series with turn out the same way.

Forbidden mysteries unraveled

As I took a quick round of the imperial gardens, I tried hard to make myself feel good. I now had my first original paintings and a handmade calligraphy by an artist. The girl had acted more like a saleswoman than an artist. But haven’t I heard so often about how important it is for artists to know how to sell their works? It was not her fault – it was the demand of the times.

My mind hardly took in all the ancient figurines and trees that had survived the age of the kings all the way into industrialization and digitization. I had forgotten to ask the name of the girl and the artist who had drawn the Southern Song painting. When I claim I have an original work by an artist, shouldn’t I at least know the name of the said artist? Maybe I should go back to them on my way back and get them to write their names for me in English. I would look an idiot displaying a supposedly original work of art to my friends and then saying I don’t know the name of the artist.

I kept absent-mindedly looking for that evasive gate that would lead me to the view of the Forbidden City while my mind was once again parsing through the last hour’s events. Should I have started bargaining from the very beginning? Maybe I would have saved 100 ¥. Also I had landed 2 very similar sketches. I probably should have taken the scene with the dragon boat instead. Maybe I can still go back and ask for an exchange.

Having given up my attempts to find that gate, I decided to go back the way I came in and find the girl again. But suddenly I found I could not find that gate either. I have this natural talent with remembering ways that can transform even office buildings into complex mazes. Then after roaming around aimlessly, I emerged out of what seemed closest to the gate I was looking for. It clearly was not the right one as there was no sign of the girl or the art gallery.

I decided to at least find the subway station from wherever I had emerged out and get back to that work mail that would be awaiting me. As I looked around, I passed a shop that seemed to be selling some exotic Chinese sweets. I had eaten nothing since morning. Maybe I could grab a quick sweet or something.

“How much do the sweets cost?”

“Some 2-3 ¥ per piece,” said the man

As I selected the sweets, he spoke up, “Do you like paintings?”

Was that a smirk I saw on his face or was I just imaging things?


“Do you like paintings?”

Now what?

“Yes. I will takes these 2 sweets.”

“That would be 5 ¥. How much did you pay for the paintings?”

I somehow did not feel like saying 650 ¥. I was already feeling like an idiot.

“Around 500 ¥ or so,” I said vaguely. “Do you have change for 100 ¥?” The expression on his face was unmistakable now.

“Give me,” he said and took my 100 ¥.”I also have some paintings back there. Would you like to have a look?”

Yes. There was an art gallery behind the sweet shop very similar to the one I had just been to. Art galleries seemed to be pursuing me everywhere.

“This note seems to be cut. Can you please give me another one?”

He gave me a different one and I followed him into the art gallery. And what was the first painting that greeted me? The very same unique seasons painting done by artist friend of earlier. Seemed like her fame had spread more than she had known.

A bit more of exploration also helped me discover those Southern Song dynasty paintings by her teacher as well. I did not want to see more nor had the courage to ask the price. I left quietly, ignoring the shop man’s protests and headed straight for the subway line.

A search on the net after I reached my room revealed this art gallery scam was a very popular one in many countries, especially popular near the Forbidden Palace area in China. The list also had a couple of more scams one of which in particular interested me. It spoke of being approached by a fellow tourist for a cup of tea. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The article spoke of the part I had missed as well. Apparently she would have taken me to a place of her choosing and disappeared after a couple of drinks and snacks, leaving me at the mercy of the tavern’s bouncers. I would have ended up coughing out a king’s ransom for the few morsels and gulps to save my life and limb. This art gallery scam at least seemed much more benign in comparison. I still had the paintings and the calligraphy at least and had enjoyed the hour selecting paintings.

Also later I found that Southern Song dynasty painting was indeed a Southern Song dynasty one. A supposedly famous one by an artist from those times – China’s Mona Lisa the article called it. I was reminded of the movie scenes where some local touts sell off the Taj Mahal to some American tourists. It did not seem all that ludicrous any more.

Spending into the Forbidden Zone

I smiled sheepishly at her. “I have cash. But I need for expenses. Can’t spend all of it here.” I somehow was not liking being pushed about so much. But still 4000 ₹ was not such a lot of money. Hadn’t I earned 25000 ₹ in that part time job last year? Didn’t I win 20000 ₹ in blogging contests last year? I deserved some indulgence. And technically I need not even consider it an indulgence – it could be considered a gift for my wife.

“Please write your name on this paper,” she said offering me a piece of paper. “Do you also want the calligraphy done for the names of your wife and children?”

Now as I mentioned I was not the one to let go of an opportunity for free stuff. So I wrote down the names of my wife and son as well.

“He is my teacher. He is the one who has painted that picture you bought,” she said, pointing to the man who was doing the calligraphy with a brush. The man uttered something to her in Chinese.

“The master says why not have calligraphy done on a scroll instead of doing on plain paper? It will look much more beautiful and you don’t even have to spend money on a frame if you get it done on a scroll. We can get the names of you, your wife and you soon all written in a single one next to each other.”

It did seem a good idea but I was not sure if they would give away one of those scrolls to me like that.

“The scroll is made of expensive material. It will cost 100 ¥. The calligraphy is of course free. You can pick from a choice of four colors.”

Oh, no. Not again. I had already spent 400 ¥ and now 100 ¥ more?

“No, plain paper will do. Just give me those.”

“See how beautiful these scrolls look. Anyways even if you take the plain paper, you have to spend on a frame. Instead take these. They look so much better.”

Hard selling the paintings was one thing – it seemed like excitement about finding patrons for the art. But I did not like the idea of being sold some material which was not a work of art. But then it would be nice to have our three names written in Chinese calligraphy on what looked like an authentic Chinese scroll.

“The master will also write a message for you? Which one do you want? General happiness or happy family? This will bring luck you know.”

Luck was something I needed badly having undergone failure after failure at work. It seems like a good omen. Already 4000 bucks was gone. Another 1000 and I would get a nice looking customized scroll. I was sure my wife would love it.

“Ok. Do the Happy Family.”

“Which color would you like? We have four colors – red, golden, silver and blue.”

Red seemed the appropriate color for China. But then calligraphy had nothing communist about it. They were more to do with royal times. Golden yellow seemed more appropriate. I had spent 5000 ₹ and 45 minutes of my time already. All I had initially intended was 5 minutes and no expense.

“Here you go. See – your name to the left, your son’s name to the right and your wife as the woman around who both your lives revolves at the center. That one there is the month and the year.”

The master meantime had left the scene. I turned around and my eyes fell on the sketch I had not picked. What was that doing out here? I did not have much longer to find out.

“My master said since you liked his work so much, to give it to you at whatever price you are willing to pay. You name a price and I will discuss my other teacher and give it to you.”

Earlier out of respect for artists, I had not tried bargaining. But these people had turned out to be the bargaining kinds giving out on the spot discounts and offers. I wondered if I should ask her to give it to me for 100 ¥. As per the old offer, I could have got it for 200 ¥. Maybe 150 ¥ would be the right price.

“You tell me what the lowest price you can offer.”

“Pay 160 ¥ and take it.”

“No. I think I won’t take it.”

“I would give it to you for 150 ¥. But 160 is a luckier number. We have sold most of the others in this set. This is one of the last pieces. Take it.”

Resigning myself to my fate, I took out 2 more 100 ¥ notes. But the girl was not done yet. My teacher says she has no change. Why don’t you take one of the paintings of the Great Wall? We will let you have one for 40 ¥. So here I was back to where it all began - The Great Wall.

“No,” I said decisively, resisting the temptation to ask if she would give me one of the season paintings for 40 ¥. “Give back my 100 ¥ Let me give you change.”

Finally I was out of the place  poorer by an hour and 560 ¥. But at least I told myself I have supported young artists - my good deed for the day.

Shopping for Paintings outside the Forbidden City

It was an intricately sketched piece depicting a scene at a market place in ancient China. The level of detail was just mind blowing. There were merchants trading wares, customers bargaining, children playing in the courtyards of their homes, laborers toiling, commoners commuting to whatever might have been their workplaces in those times, royals being carried around on their palanquins etc.

“This one is a depiction of the era of the Southern Song dynasty. Also have a look at these two as well. We had 10 of these. But they are in great demand. We have only 3 left now.”

The other two were equally good. She mentioned some other dynasty name for one of them that I could not catch clearly. But I am a total sucker for History and all this mention of ancient kingdoms had me salivating.

“This one here is a depiction of the annual dragon boat festival,” she added pointing to one of them.

My wife and I had decided to collect little figurines or painting replicas from wherever we undertook trips and make a collection of trip mementos. This one would serve as that. Only the ones we usually bought were from roadside souvenir shops and much cheaper. But still 3000 ₹ was not all that much. A meal here was costing 1000 ₹ and a coffee 250 ₹. Also if I do not respect an artist, who would?

“These are original works, aren’t they? Is this the only existing copy of this work?”

After all it was something to have an original piece of work. We could not afford works of the masters. But we could patronize these small time artists. I had this inescapable niggling feeling about this extravagance on my part that I was trying hard to rationalize.

“Ok. I will have this one,” I said finally making a choice between the two roadside scenes. The water scene I decided to give a miss due to the lesser number of elements in the scene. You know the Indian mentality – more the better.

“Take both – Yin and Yang. That will be a good balance.”

“I don’t have money,” I repeated like a broken record.

Suddenly her face took on a sad expression. “So you are not taking any of my paintings?”

Yeah, indeed. My first intention of buying had been to humor her. And now I was ditching her painting. How callous of me.

I don’t have money.” I was feeling like an idiot repeating myself over and over again.

“I will tell you what – I will let you have this for 100 ¥. I want my paintings to be seen in foreign countries. So I am willing to forgo some of my money.”

Now this was an offer one could not refuse. 50% discount! And I got to humor her as well. Also there would be some variety. The Southern Song dynasty picture was monochrome while this one was colorful. I looked through and picked one of autumn.

“You mentioned some free calligraphy.”

Having been made to part with so much of my hard earned wealth, I was going to ensure I got every penny’s worth.

“Yeah. Of course. Let us first finish this transaction and then let us see about it. By the way I noticed you had a hard time deciding between the two paintings. I have an offer for you. Take both of them and I will give you my painting free.”

It was a good offer – a further saving of 100 ¥. But I was getting a bad feeling about this. I had agreed to buy the painting for the sake of the girl and she was saying she would throw it in free. How could an artist agree to give her work free with something just like that? Maybe for the greater good of the school, I told myself.

“No. I have already spent a lot. Let me pay the bill and then let us get the calligraphy done.”

I took out my card to pay.

“There will be an extra charge of 20 ¥ on the card payment. I hope it is fine.”

No. I did not want to lose a penny more. So I pulled out my wad of 100 ¥ notes and began to count out four.

“Why? You have so much cash. Why did you say you have none? Take one more painting.”

An Art Exhibition at the Gates of the Forbidden City

I turned around. It was…..not her.

“The Forbidden City is closed. But you may pay two Yuan and see the garden,” said the ruddy faced plainer looking girl.

“Thank you very much. But is there some way I can at least see the Forbidden City from outside?”

I had actually gone all the way to Rome and come back after seeing the Colosseum from outside just because my friend who had come along did not want to cough up the 10 Euro fee to see it from inside. He had argued that seeing famous places was nothing but a tick in the box. So it did not matter if you saw it from inside or from outside – it was all the same. 

“Yeah. If you walk towards the South West Gate, you will be able to see it.”

“How long will it take to reach the South West Gate?”

It was getting late. I was wondering if my boss had sent across some work. I had better be starting back.

“It will take 15 minutes. Maybe 10 if you walk fast.”

“Do I have to walk through the garden or can the Forbidden City entrance be reached from outside as well?”

She pointed across the street. “You can go round that way but it would be longer.”

So that decided matters. The garden it was.

“By the way, I am an art student. Would you mind taking a minute off to have a look at the display of our art works before your proceed to the garden?”

Poor girl had so patiently answered all my questions. I definitely owed her at least this much.
I entered the little stall and she began to excitedly show me around the art gallery.

“Have you been to the Great wall?”

“Yeah. Went there today morning.”

“See these beautiful paintings of the great wall by my fellow students. Beautiful, aren’t they?”

They looked just ok. But they were too small and seemed to be printed on ordinary paper. They did not look all that great to me. But then these were students of art. I needed to encourage them. So I just nodded.

“See these. They are my paintings. They represent winter, spring, summer and autumn respectively. What do you think of them?”

These were pretty decent and I kind of like the concept of paintings representing seasons. The paper also looked better with embroidered borders.

“How much do they cost?”

I suddenly looked at my watch. Twenty minutes had just flown away. I was yet to see the garden and the entrance to the Forbidden City. I was supposed to have finished all that and should have been on the metro back to the hotel by now. But anyways how did it matter what I had seen and what I had not. I had enjoyed myself relishing all those beautiful paintings, hadn’t I? That was all that mattered.

“The prices vary. We have paintings from 100 Yuan on. The ones by the teachers are more expensive.”

“How much is this one?” I asked pointing at one of hers.

“That one will be 200 Yuan. Which one will you take?”

That was like 2000 Rs. I had not intended to spend anything that evening. But the poor girl had spent so much time explaining stuff to me. It would be a pity leaving without buying anything.

“But aren’t the four a set. If I take one, won’t the set be incomplete?”

“Yes. It will be. So why don’t you take all four of them?”

“I don’t have so much money.”

“No problem. You can pay by card if you don’t have cash.”

“I mean it is too expensive for me.”

“Then take one of the Great Wall ones. They are just hundred Yuan a piece. By the way as an incentive, if you buy any art work, my master will do a calligraphy for you free of charge.”

I wondered if I should ask her if she could give one of the season paintings for 100 Yuan. But then that felt so so wrong. How would I feel if someone asked me to give me a copy of my book at half price? As an aspiring artist myself I needed to respect a fellow artist. I again asked her to explain the four seasons. She explained in detail also pointing to the larger versions of the same paintings that were on the wall across.

I was about to pay for one of the season paintings when my eyes fell on a couple of paintings to the corner.

A Forbidden drink outside the Forbidden City

It was a Sunday afternoon. There had still been no mail from my boss. I was out on the streets. The sun was out in the sky. And there was a song in my heart. For the first time while on a project I had taken time out to come sight-seeing. And even the name Forbidden City held some kind of a forbidden charm.

“Where you from?” My reverie was interrupted by a singsong Chinese feminine voice.

I turned around to see a smartly dressed woman.

“I am from India?”

“India? That is a nice country. You come here for vacation?”

Sigh! How I wish I were. But not for the middle class the pleasures of foreign vacations.

“No. I am on work. Just had the weekend off. So came to see around.”

“That is nice. I too am here on vacation.”

Excuse me! You too? Who else is on vacation? Anyways sarcasm is not your best friend when you are sightseeing in a foreign country.

“But, aren’t you Chinese?”

“Yes – but from different city.”


“Shall we hire a guide and see around together?”

This was an interesting proposition. Isn’t that the solitary male traveler’s fantasy – finding an interesting female companion to see around with. Anyways I was old and married and all that. So that probably wouldn’t apply to me. Or should I say shouldn't? Still meeting and getting to know foreigners was something, wasn’t it? Conversing and getting to know various cultures, broadening your horizons and all the other good stuff– isn’t that what travel is all about? Hadn’t I always wished I could socialize with random strangers during travels as they show in movies? Here was an opportunity serve on a golden platter.

“We can.”

“I inquired with people. They said there is nothing to see till five. We have an hour to kill. Why don’t we have a drink?”

It was quite cold and I could do with a cup of hot chocolate. But I had just got here – I wanted to at least see something before I went indoors. In a place where sunshine is limited, it would be criminal to waste those precious hours of sunshine indoors.

“Isn’t there something we can see before five?”

“No. There is nothing. Let us come back at five. Come with me. Let us have a drink.”

She was pointing in the opposite direction. I am generally a very pliable and accommodating person. But at times I have these stubborn moments. Something told me I didn’t want to turn back.

“Isn’t there a place to drink that way?” I asked pointing ahead.

“No. There is nothing that way.”

What was I to do? Here was my irrational stubbornness arraigned against an opportunity to make friends with a local at a foreign country. Places, I could see pictures of even on the internet. Meeting people was the key and I was letting a golden opportunity slip by. Maybe this stubbornness was my mind’s way of resisting a new experience. Was this why I never tended to make so many friends? I needed to change and become more sociable. Haven’t people been telling me this from childhood?

“Hm… I think you should go ahead for the drink. I will move on.”

A disappointed expression came over her face as she turned around and walked on. She did not try to convince me to come with her. She had accepted my no with dignity. I was immediately filled with regret. But what was done was done. No crying over spilt milk.  Anyways I did not have much time, I convinced myself. I could not have afforded to spend some of my limited time inside a coffee shop or wherever she intended to take me.

I walked around Tiananmen Square clicking some selfies and some non selfies with my mobiles. What do you call the usual pictures taken with mobile anyway? I tried to figure the maps and made my way towards what looked like the entrance to the Forbidden City. I would not have time to explore inside. Probably I could just have a look at it from outside. 

As I entered the passage that I hoped would lead me to the Forbidden City, I hear a sing song voice. “Where you from?”

For whom the bell tolls

A book of faces