Review: Red Rising (Series), by Pierce Brown

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.


Review: Sherlock, Season 4

It seemed an apt New Year’s resolution to finally return to this much-maligned blog and give it another go, after the lengthy post-less drought that has lasted six months or more. It’s not that I’ve had nothing to write about, but there was no heart in those two brief posts, and every time I considered writing something it merely faded into the back of my mind.

And so I missed *that* presidential election (although I’m in two minds as to whether that was a particularly bad thing), and never got to comment on my (somewhat related) first watch-through of House of Cards, as well as many other things. But hopefully I can sustain something more consistent this time before giving up.

Anyhow, today’s blog post is about Sherlock. Specifically, my thoughts on the fourth season as a whole, and what it means for the show past and present…

And so, without further ado…


In the closing moments of this year’s finale, The Final Problem, we were left with a strange, bittersweet sense that this was indeed the final problem, and that even if this is not the last we see of Sherlock, it is unquestionably the end of an era, in a way.

Despite its slightly rushed and awkward ending – Mary’s final monologue, played over a montage of Sherlock and John in the newly refitted surroundings of 221b Baker Street, was a fitting tribute to the show, particularly in its two most recent seasons. And while that ending retained a certain cheesiness that we’ve come to expect from a number of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes,  it seemed an appropriate testament to what Sherlock has been over the past 6 or 7 episodes, more than ever: a story of Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson and the people that surround them, rather than just a tale about a bloke in a funny hat who solves crimes.

Of course, opinions differ on whether Seasons 1 and 2 of Sherlock were truly ‘the glory days’ of the show, and while none of this year’s episodes quite matched up to The Reichenbach Fall or A Scandal In Belgravia, they did show that the show could work with this character-based outlook, where the plot is woven to bring them together and tear them apart rather than building everything up into some grand-Jim-Moriarty-based conspiracy.

Yet… this season of Sherlock does suffer from the lack of one cohesive thread running throughout, which was where Seasons 2 and 3 were at their stronger. Yes, there is the prevailing theme of the past coming back to haunt our main characters – “the roads we walk have demons beneath,” Mycroft says ominously in The Final Problem – and while The Six Thatchers certainly proved the truth of this in the case of Mary and The Final Problem brought Sherlock and Mycroft’s ‘secret sister’ Eurus into the light as both a physical representation of their old demons and an incentive for them to unlock their darkest and deepest secrets, the season lacked cohesion in places, and lacked resolution to many of these threads. It was a shame, really, that The Final Problem’s tense and dramatic excitement seemed to suddenly wither out and die into nothingness. Perhaps I’m alone in this, but it was the rather uninspired action of simply throwing John a rope into the well to rescue him from drowning that made the episode’s ending seem so much like an anticlimax. I think The Final Problem could have benefitted from another five or ten minutes towards the end to close everything up neatly or to offer more depth into Sherlock’s realisations.

Additionally, with a season so centred on Sherlock, John, Mycroft and Mary, it was a shame to see background characters like Lestrade and Molly pushed to the sidelines (though Mrs. Hudson certainly got her time in the limelight in The Lying Detective).

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Now to take a look at things episode-by-episode: The Six Thatchers is almost unanimously agreed upon as the season’s weakest, perhaps for its overwhelming focus on Mary. Personally, I have no issues with Mary as a character, and I think the failings of The Six Thatchers can be somewhat attributed to the fact that it was the first proper Sherlock episode in ages and thus many were disappointed not to see another Scandal In Belgravia-type episode to start the season off with a bang, but also to the somewhat disjointed and meandering nature of parts of this episode, where it very occasionally felt like a high-production soap drama. Admittedly, the highly character-focused nature of this episode (acted excellently by Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington in particular) did overshadow some of the mystery and intrigue, but I think it was The Six Thatchers that left me the most personally affected at its conclusion.

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Then there’s The Lying Detective. Toby Jones’s portrayal of Culverton Smith was incredibly menacing, and that laugh was nightmarish, but I think it was Benedict Cumberbatch who stole the show in this one. His acting, coupled with the fantastic work of director Nick Hurran (the use of transitions when Sherlock realises that Culverton Smith is a serial killer is one of the show’s best sequences from a filmmaking perspective), left us constantly unnerved, wondering for a long time whether Sherlock actually had gone mad in his drug-addled delirium. After the episode’s initial build-up and its first climax, we understand that this is a story about saving John Watson as much as it is about Sherlock exposing a serial killer. And in the closing scenes at Baker Street, John becomes what he always has been: sturdy, loyal, reliable. It’s certainly touching… but then we have the episode’s ending scene and everything that has happened seems to pale in the face of the final revelation. It’s brilliantly done, and one of the biggest twists Sherlock has ever pulled on us. Special kudos are due to actress Sian Brooke, who hopefully should get the recognition she deserves after her performance/performances.

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And The Final Problem. This, arguably, is the episode that lies at very heart of Sherlock. The choice to conclude this season – and quite possibly the series as a whole – with Sherlock solving the final problem and his first problem at the same time is certainly poetic, and most of the points about the excellent character writing from the previous two episodes carry through here, though Sherlock himself definitely applied himself in a more practical context in this episode. Also Mycroft (played with Mark Gatiss’s characteristic touch of wit) shone through here, and it did not come at the expense of either Sherlock or John. And while I’ve outlined my minor quibbles with the ending above, the first 70-75 minutes of The Final Problem were nail-bitingly tense and effectively built up a sense of dread (I think all of us knew that it was going to build to Sherlock being forced to shoot either Mycroft or John). There were a few unfortunate parts, such as the way Moriarty was brushed under the table after his brief appearance, and that absolutely horrific CGI explosion, but for the most part it was a fantastic thrill-ride, and definitely made us go through a gauntlet of emotions.

Nothing is perfect. And I’ll go on record and say that I think this wasn’t Sherlock’s strongest season, but it was anything but bad. The acting was exemplary, the directing and the production superb. I still retain a lot of respect for Moffatt and Gatiss as writers for rarely venturing into overtly contrived plots; for making these characters so real, flaws and faults and all; and for producing four-and-a-half hours of compelling television every two years. (I never said they were fast.)

Yes, we might criticise it afterwards, and perhaps rightly so, but Sherlock is one of those shows where you enjoy every moment of it the first time through. Every episode brings something new to the table, for every episode is not only a separate story but a show in itself, in some ways. Yes, the narratives came secondary to characters here, which may have been a mistake, and it was confusing in places.

But it was anything but average. Anything but normal.

That, perhaps, is what makes Sherlock – both the character and the show – so treasured.

If the game is over for good, then this was a noble tribute to one of the best and the wisest shows I have ever known.

And if not…

Next week (though I may be a bit lax about this), I’ll be reviewing Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, new on Netflix, and hopefully I’ll finally get around to finishing Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, so that will get a review too.

Sherlock, and the images seen in this post, are the property of the BBC.