All right, I finally got to the review of the second installment of Brown’s Red Rising trilogy. Golden Son was supposed to get bigger, better and more badass than its predecessor. Together with Darrow we leave the sheltered – even if a bit stifling – confines of the Institute, and are free to roam the big world outside, the whole Solar System colonized by genetically modified races of humans.
It sounds so perfect. The unfulfilled promise of Red Rising, which gave us only a glimpse of the broader world, was to be realized in its sequel, Golden Son. No longer were we to read about cruel games of privileged teenagers, Golden Son was to be the real deal. The teeth and claw of brutal reality, the multi-faceted political conflicts, the economic wars and the grey areas in between. And it even starts with a suitable bang, on a deck of a starship, in the middle of a naval fight, with very Ender-like Darrow tasting his final academic military success and witnessing as it immediately turns to ash.
But does it deliver?
That’s the question, isn’t it ;). Red Rising was deeply flawed, its unoriginality the primordial sin which even fast-paced action and interesting premise couldn’t absolve. It suffered from the rough, uneven writing, from debutante’s unsure footing, from illogicality plaguing those works where the set shape of conclusion is rigid and unmovable, even at the cost of psychological probability or internal consistence. But Golden Son was going to build on the foundation laid in Red Rising, it was supposed to expand the universe, eliminate the flaws inherent in most of the debuts, become something more. Has it?
Well… the answer is no.
The longer I read Golden Son the angrier I got. It started well enough, with a suitable level of nuance to make me believe it could actually get better than Red Rising. But the feeling didn’t last long. Every plot solution was foreshadowed chapters or even a book away. Every action, however illogical or ill-devised, served as a simple plot vehicle – to move it in the direction the author intended. There’s nothing wrong with it; in itself, it’s just the way books are written, is it not? But Brown’s lack of subtlety, his one-dimensional vision of characters and their lack of growth make the experience of reading Golden Son a very painful one.
Let’s start from the beginning. It’s been a few years after Darrow and his pals completed their training at the Institute. Now some of them, including our protagonist, finish the naval military Academia, while others took different paths – those of politicos or soldiers, or media magnates. They are grown-ups now. G-r-o-w-n–u-p-s. I will spell it out for Brown’s sake, since he seems to have entirely forgotten that little fact. His characters hadn’t developed one day beyond the Institute. They behave exactly the same way, they see the world through exactly the same lens of a hormone-driven, irresponsible and slightly sociopathic teenager. What had been Red Rising’s main strength, the true portrait of an angry and lost sixteen-year-old dumped into a fundamentally different reality, now is Golden Son’s one of main weaknesses. What had been endearing now is simply infuriating. Because the context had changed. It is dramatically different, a fact that Brown himself (or his publishers) pointed out gazillions of times. Real world, older characters, different motivations and interests… How can you not develop your protagonists?! I get it, being sixteen has a certain charm, who wouldn’t want to feel that sweet time again, even for a little while, but the harsh truth is this: you can’t keep it forever. You need to move on. Yeah, I’m talking to you, Pierce Brown.
I won’t regale you with the summary of the plot. It is entirely predictable. It is entirely two-dimensional. It is, depending on your mood, either infuriatingly banal or teeth-gnashingly irritating. There is sex. There is great revealing, taking down masks and lots of unburdening of soul. There’s even hugging, although it’s rather confused and ashamed of itself, which makes me wonder what the author was really trying to convey at that point. There are great battles, in the air and on the ground, even an Iron Rain. And you know what? It was boring. Well, maybe except the Iron Rain 😉 The mindless action parts are Brown’s real strength, and it’s a pleasure (a slightly guilty one :P) to read a solid description of a concerted military attack. But this pleasure was an ephemeral one – it ended much to quickly to my liking, and was superseded by… yeah, you guessed it. More unburdening of soul. More guilt trips. More revealing of “the true self”. More trite bullshit, in other words.
Brown tries to get better, he really does. He definitely ramps up the blood and gore factor, and Darrow’s friends and foes die all around him like flies. Brown’s language has also improved, albeit slightly, and the world he created in Golden Son is truly richer and more nuanced than what we glimpsed in Red Rising. However, the plot and the character development are a different matter altogether. I can only guess at the reasons, but my guess wouldn’t be some internal inability. It would be pragmatism and mercantilism. That simple. Because why would you improve on something that proved good already? It’s costly and risky. And so, since the original concept worked so well, why in Earth even attempt to change it? As a result, once again we get a multitude, or a cascade, of crude, two-sided conflicts. There are the bad guys and the good guys, and the only alteration to this model is that one of the good guys has a hidden agenda. Or… maybe more of the good guys! Wow. The level of sophistication leaves me speechless.
The same goes for the characters’ language. It generally feels like listening to someone with painful obstruction grinding out heavy words under threat of death.
I will die. You will die. We will all die and the universe will carry on without care. All that we have is that shout into the wind – how we live. How we go. And how we stand before we fall.
For seven hundred years, my people have been enslaved without voice, without hope. Now I am their sword. And I do not forgive. I do not forget. So let him lead me onto his shuttle. Let him think he owns me. Let him welcome me into his house, so I might burn it down.
All those big, big words. I must admit I quickly tired of them.
Somewhere in the middle of Golden Son I realized I no longer cared about any of the characters. They never realized their potential from Red Rising, becoming instead even more simplified and two-dimensional; just cut-out cardboard figures moving about the set stage without any life or volition of their own. Even my favorite, Sevro, lost his crooked appeal. Maybe because Darrow treated him, and saw him, just as Brown did – simply as another plot device.
I didn’t reach for the third installment. Honestly, I seriously doubt whether I will do it in the foreseeable future, the second book being such a letdown. I have too many other books, good ones, to read, to waste my time on Morning Star. But maybe, just maybe, my compulsion for finishing once-started endeavors will get the better of me ;). And maybe I will be even pleasantly surprised? I won’t count on it, though. Being lean, mean and efficient doesn’t really translate well into the world of literature.