It’s been a while since I last read a YA novel, and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series (Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star) has reminded me exactly what I like and dislike about the genre. Obviously (and at the risk of sounding very pretentious), the trilogy is no great intellectual test, much as it harbours occasional illusions of being such. But in terms of being something that, to use the unfortunate cliché, is “a real page-turner”, you can’t get much better than this. And so, to offer a quick response, Red Rising is something I would read again, but only in the near-impossible event that I had nothing better to read.
The front cover offers up an interesting quotation: “Ender, Katniss, and now Darrow”, the latter referring to Darrow of Lykos, the protagonist of Brown’s series. Unfortunately, I have to dispute this. Much like the book he’s contained within, Darrow is a lot of fun to read about, but he comes across as weirdly flat. And even then, Ender and Katniss seem like strange company to place him. Loath as I am to say it, Orson Scott Card managed a nigh-impossible feat in Ender Wiggin, creating a strange, oddly punchable not-really-hero in a place where a hero was needed. And Katniss, as generic as she might be on the surface, has a certain tragic brilliance to her character. Darrow, on the other hand, is a “full-blooded American hero” with the occasional twinges of conscience that don’t feel as much a part of his character as they are just things Brown decided he should probably put in to give his series a bit of emotional nuance. Which is odd, considering that his story is one that perfectly suits a battle of tragic moral conscience. Unfortunately, Darrow the Gold is a bit more lively than Darrow the Red, so the latter tends to get drowned out.
Luckily, he’s saved by a life-raft of half a dozen fantastic secondary characters. One of my favourite things about Red Rising, is that though Darrow is central to the action, the Reaper is no Mockingjay. He has something that vaguely resembles Katniss’s press and make-up team, but unlike in The Hunger Games, a lot of the supporting cast stand up by themselves. Brown could have written this story from the viewpoint of Mustang, or Cassius, or even Sevro, and it would have been nearly as interesting – though, of course, Darrow’s Red subplot would be cast aside in favour of other storylines. There’s definitely room for a side novella here and there.
Darrow’s problems as a character are somewhat symptomatic of the novel’s problems as a whole. Brown is, on the whole, quite heavy-handed, both in terms of style and the impact of what he writes. The sentences are sharp and weighty, and this style translates itself well in the action scenes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work so well in the sequences where he tries to convince himself that Red Rising has a serious intellectual purpose. These sections are few and far between, and sometimes they work, but they’re usually communicated in such a ham-fisted way that they aren’t fit for anything except being plastered on a T-shirt. Or maybe Brown does know this, and he’s mocking us. Roque, the archetypal warrior-poet, speaking entirely in classical allusions, seems to be a caricature of a ‘high society’ stereotype. (Not that this diminishes Roque, though; he’s one of the best characters in the series.) Indeed, Gold as a whole is a strange, hyper-conservative faction which insists on stealing from the ‘glorious past’ – which they themselves destroyed – to build a new Roman Empire in space.
Of the three novels, Red Rising is probably the weakest, largely due to an early-middle section where nothing very much seems to be happening. But at the same time, its first five chapters are very strong. “On Mars there is not much gravity. So you have to pull the feet to break the neck. They let the loved ones do it.” And I’m sold. Just like that. A side note: this shows how effective Brown’s punchy writing can be. But if you had to read this for a whole novel, you’d get irritated quickly. Bloodydamn quickly. Another weakness in the first novel is the disconnect between the opening, with the Reds, and the latter part with the Golds, but this division remains manageable – though it is a bit more problematic in Morning Star, where Darrow seems to forget his birth family altogether.
Golden Son was a very different experience. My gut reaction is that I enjoyed this one most, probably for the way it brought all our main characters together on one side of the war, expanded on the Golds – who, despite their prejudices, are by far the most complex of the colors – and for the brilliant ending that isn’t at all what you’d expect from YA. However, in retrospect, it’s a bit thin on the ground in terms of having any actual themes. At least it wasn’t Catching Fire, though.
Morning Star is the strongest of the three novels in terms of a character arc for Darrow; I liked how the whole Mustang and Eo situation resolved itself with a decision that had consequences for the entirety of the war, instead of just being a fairly unexciting internal battle. But again, parts of Morning Star showcase the very weakest parts of Brown’s writing. I’m going to have to indulge in a bit of hypocrisy here, because I’ve done this in my own writing, but there’s a particularly irritating stylistic quirk of his where he withholds information from the reader, recurrent from Golden Son, where, during a fight with Cassius au Bellona, Darrow suddenly reveals that he’s been taught in secret by the Society’s very own Mr. Miyagi, and is now an international assassin. Surprise! There are a few other things like this that get on my nerves.
Once again, I think this is a review that sounds far more critical than it actually is. I did enjoy Red Rising, or whatever this series is called, and found it to be something of a comfort read – probably a strange sentiment, considering the amount of blood and murder in this series, but a comfort read doesn’t necessarily need to be all happy-go-lucky, just something that can be read without having your brain ache too much.