Before I discussed Golden Son’s characters. Now I will discuss its plot and setting which are, to put it simply, very good. NPR’s Jason Sheehan called Pierce Brown one of literature’s great borrowers, and it’s true—in much the same way as Quentin Tarantino, Brown weaves elements from disparate stories and genres into a powerful, streamlined juggernaut of a book.
The writing is a step down from Red Rising. Most likely because this book was under a tighter deadline. It’s a small downward creep, but evident in the number of passages that tell, rather than show, spelling out Darrow’s thoughts with an insulting level of clarity (I get it, I’m not stupid). It’s evident in the increased number of typos, things a skilled editor should have been able to catch (again lending credence to the theory that the whole affair was a little more rushed than last time around).
But if Golden Son really was rushed, it’s truly a testament to Pierce Brown that the plot turned out as well as it did. Sure, there are moments, especially towards the first half of the book, where he seems to be utilizing the machine-gun method of plotting—fire off a clip of thirty plot twists a second and if a few miss, hope no one will notice because there are just so many (fans of things like the anime Death Note or the TV show 24 will recognize this tactic). Rather than ensure each twist and turn makes sense, he throws so many twists at you so fast it’s all but impossible to even tell if they make sense or not. But I went back and re-read the first 100-or-so pages a few times and I’m pretty sure that most do. A commendably high proportion, really. Since some of the book contains dialogue ripped straight from Game of Thrones (“you are not my son,” one very-Tywin-Lannister-esque character growls at one point), I am going to assume that Pierce Brown is a fan, and I’m also going to assume he was attempting to out-Martin George RR Martin when it came to a rollicking plot. I’m not sure if he succeeded, but I think he actually might have.
Another thing this book was clearly inspired by was Star Wars (“never tell the odds,” Darrow says at one point, echoing Han Solo’s famous line. Yes, they went there.) and it is filled with space battles galore. Characters blast from StarShells and ripWings, attacking with their pulseFists and IonBlades. Other characters counter with their gravBoots and pulseSpheres. Or is it gravSpheres and pulseBoots? PulseBoots–are they a thing? What about gravPulses? I can’t remember, and neither will you, most likely. But hey—razors. I can at least remember what those are—Golden Son’s version of a lightsaber. Or would that be a lightSaber? All words are cooler if they are made of two other words that are smashed together and capitalized strangely. It is known.
The fights are tense, vivid, and breathtaking, as long as you can tell what is going on, which is around 60% of the time, the amount of understanding varying depending on how many different kinds of PulseItems are involved.
The setting has inevitably drawn comparisons to Star Wars, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, but I daresay there is enough that is fresh and new to keep genre fans enthused. The caste system and the politics of the bickering gold families gets fleshed out this time around, and while I’m still unclear on some aspects of the color system (are there non-white people in this universe? There have to be, right? Does that mean there could be a black gold with blonde hair? It does, doesn’t it?) I am willing to accept a little ambiguity for the sake of pacing. And when it comes to its competition, Golden Son does pacing quite well.
The Hunger Games is fast-paced, but the world feels under-developed and hazy. I was never quite sure how big the districts of Panem are, how the technology works, or how the world got to be the way it did. Game of Thrones (properly known as A Song of Ice and Fire, but let’s face it, Game of Thrones is a way better title) has exceptional world-building, but (at least in the last two books) crawls at a sluggish pace. Golden Son is a creature of perfect balance (a phrase that Pierce Brown probably used to describe Darrow at some point) in this regard. The pacing is fast, frenetic even, but with enough room to breathe, enough time to develop the characters and the world. Brown excels at imparting information in a subtle manner, weaving it into the story instead of stopping the story to hand it to you like a waiter interrupting a dinner conversation to present you with your meal. The result is a story that, whatever else it is, is never dull. Never stagnant.
One thing Golden Son hasn’t (at least to my knowledge) been compared to yet is James Clavell’s epic historical novel Shogun. This is probably because few people have read that book in this day and age, and so it’s simpler (and lazier) to just compare anything dystopian to The Hunger Games and anything with political intrigue to Game of Thrones. But in many ways Golden Son hews closer to Shogun than it does to anything else. Yes, Golden Son lifts a few plot twists directly from the annals of George RR Martin’s work, but the whole concept of a man thrust into the complex machinations of another culture comes straight from Shogun.
Of course, the hero of James Clavell’s book made many a blunder, and for all his skill, he was constantly in danger of being swallowed by the unforgiving world of feudal Japan. Pierce Brown strives for that some feeling—the outmatched protagonist up against an alien world—but as I mentioned before, falls short simply because Darrow never actually feels outmatched. Because of passages like this:
“I feel something buzzing in those around me. A sort of physical fanaticism. It did not buzz in the Golds quite like this. The Golds love me because of the victory and glory I bring. These other Colors love me for something different, something far more potent…it seems everyone just wants to follow.”
With a different protagonist at the helm, Brown’s series could have become a work of genuine epic grandeur.
But instead we have Darrow. So how does it all measure up when all is said and done? I’m still not sure. It’s a wildly inventive piece of fiction that deserves a lot of praise, but I wanted it—so badly wanted it—to be even more than it is. To be great. And greatness requires a strong protagonist to carry the story. That’s one task—perhaps the only task—somewhat beyond Darrow’s ability.