After getting caught up in the exciting whirl-wind that was Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, I was oh-so-eager to begin Golden Son, the sequel. Red Rising was, despite a few flaws, quite a great read, leaping along from plot twist to plot twist with the energy of a bloody and madcap soap opera while still balancing a number of weighty and serious themes.
Golden Son is a…complicated reading experience. Never have I had such a love-hate relationship with a book, because there is so damn much to love and plenty to hate. This is the book that brought me back to blogging after more than a year’s absence.
Let’s start with the hate. Just to get it out of the way.
SPOILER ALERT–though no specific plot details will be discussed, events from Golden Son will be mentioned in general terms. I will NOT spoil any deaths, revelations, or major twists, but I will talk about trends and characters.
Golden Son, like its predecessor, Red Rising, is set in a grim future where humanity (having colonized most of the moon sand planets of the solar system) is organized into colors based on their trade, because if there’s one thing dystopian governments love to do, it’s organize people into cutely-named/numbered sub-groups (Dauntless? No, House Mars). Blues are intellectuals, yellows are scientists, violets are artists, pinks are sex slaves, reds are menial labor, and so on and so forth. The ruling class is a cadre of blonde overlords called the golds, because blonde people are evil.
Darrow, a red, is chosen to undergo a sort of Flowers-of-Algernon-esque procedure that grants him the intellect and physical strength of a gold (well, actually, for some unexplained reason, it grants him intellect and strength superior to that of any gold, but we’ll get to that later). His mission: to infiltrate the Society and bring it down from the inside so a revolution of the oppressed underclasses can rise up and stage a revolution.
To do so, Darrow will have to join forces with a house of golds led by the evil Nero au Augustus (because if there’s another thing dystopian governments like, it’s Roman names—here’s looking at you, Hunger Games!) and pit himself against the power of the even more evil Sovereign, the ruler of all the golds. It’s a story of adventure, intrigue, plot twists, death, plot twists, friendship, and did I mention the plot twists?
So, without further ado, let’s break down all that is great, terrible, and everything in between in Golden Son, book two of the Red Rising trilogy.
Golden Son has only one sizable problem, really. The problem is that it’s very sizable indeed. So much of your enjoyment of this book will hinge on whether you buy the protagonist, Darrow, as a hero. I didn’t.
The first book would have you believe that Darrow, a man born and raised in a mine with nothing approaching a proper education, was smarter, deadlier, and more charismatic than an entire school full of golds, the elite ruling class of this series’ dystopian society—beings raised from birth to be rulers. Fine. It’s implausible, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief that far. After all, it’s only one school out of many in the galaxy, and maybe all Darrow’s classmates were just having an off-day.
But Golden Son would have you believe that Darrow is not merely the top of his class, but the top, period. He’s the smartest person not just in his school, not just on his planet, but in the entire known universe. He picks up new skills the way James Bond picks up women, and that’s a great metaphor because James Bond is a smug, plucky bastard who gets way too lucky all the time and so is Darrow.
Perhaps the most crushing example of Darrow’s absurd superiority is in a shuttle full of at least three geniuses (so described, unfortunately, by the author himself with a painful lack of self-awareness) and they all turn to Darrow for advice. Really? A spaceship full of the galaxy’s brightest minds, and no one but Darrow could think of a way out of that jam? No one could even try? And this happens. Every. Time. It’s always Darrow’s plan—no one else is capable of planning when Darrow is in the room. The other characters are merely props in the background, standing in place as Darrow dances circles around them—except of course for the few occasion every now and then when Pierce Brown realizes that a story with no suspense is boring, so he throws the villains a bone and lets them get one up on Darrow…for about five pages. Almost certainly through cheating or betrayal, because no one, let’s be clear (because Pierce Brown really wants you to understand this), no one could ever beat Darrow in a fair contest.
Let’s imagine Darrow in a piano contest against the Society’s top piano players. Pierce Brown might write that scene something like this:
“They’ve been trained by Mozarts. Bachs. Their notes are fluid, precise. The way they’ve been trained to play. I haven’t been trained, not like them. But I was born in a mine, where we sang dirges for the dead and songs of celebration for the living. Songs of passion, of light like the candle that draws the fluttering wings of moths in the night. Their music is ice. Mine is fire. They’ve never seen it before.”
And…Darrow wins the piano contest. You see, his uneducated, impoverished rustic background was actually a secret advantage! Who knew?
Not only is he ridiculously good at everything, because clearly miners make the best tacticians/warriors/leaders/inspirational figures/duelists/stealth commandos/advisers ever, he gets away with actions that should be fatal. Instead of, I don’t know, shooting the man in the head for his gall, time and again, Darrow’s enemies end up respecting his cojones and letting him off the hook. This is a guy who could walk up to Darth Vader and punch him in the face, only for Vader to tell him how much he totally respects Darrow’s giant balls and oh, would Darrow please serve as Vader’s second-in-command because he so badly needs a guy with big balls like Darrow. And while you’re at it, go ahead and punch me in the face again, Darrow, because it’s a privilege to be punched by such a big-ball-having, awesomely cool person as you are.
Everyone loves a good underdog story—the tale of a hero rising up against an overwhelming oppressor and winning through a combination of grit, luck, and skill. But in this story, I’m not sure the author realizes who the underdog is. It’s not Darrow, despite the fact that his enemies are legion and command fleets of deadly warships. No—the underdog is literally everyone else. Which leads to the awkward situation where you find yourself cheering every time the bad guys (and gals) pull off a win, if only because it’s new, it’s exciting, and it offers some kind of feeble, desperate proof that Darrow isn’t really a Mary Sue (a term for a perfectly flawless character). Is he?
Sadly, yes, he is. I might as well call him Darry-Sue. The great tragedy of Golden Son isn’t a Society where people are kept as slaves, where thousands of people are vented into space at the whim of a cruel overlord or butchered at dinner as part of a ruthless power play. The true tragedy of Golden Son is that with so many memorable, interesting, brilliant supporting characters, the protagonist is such a flat heap of wearying perfection, like a smooth, freshly-baked golden pancake.
Darrow seems to have been intentionally crafted to be perfect, more so than he was in Red Rising. At the end of Red Rising there was (minor spoilers) a sample chapter from the then-upcoming book two containing a scene in which Darrow was ordered by Ares (the leader of his resistance movement) to blow up all the gold leaders by detonating a bomb in their midst. He might have ended the struggle right then and there, but he chose not to. Why? Because he couldn’t accept that the golds had beaten him, leaving a suicide bombing as his only recourse. His stubborn pride prevented him from following out Ares’ plan. It’s a great scene, and perfectly in keeping with the arrogance and ambition Darrow repeatedly displayed in Red Rising. The hero’s flaw is what keeps the story moving; his selfishness keeps him and all the villains from ending up as crisps.
In the final version of Golden Son, a similar scene exists, but it’s been slightly altered. Just like before, Darrow refuses to detonate the bomb, but his reason is different. I would explain what it is, but it’s so nebulous and confusing as to be hard to put into words. Something about finding a more noble solution, seeing it through to the end? Darrow realizing that a suicide bombing could never be Ares’ true plan? In this version of the scene, instead of the hero’s flaw propelling the story forward, it’s the hero’s perceptiveness that keeps him going. Yet a-bloodydamn-gain.
This isn’t to say Pierce Brown is bad at characterization. Far from it. Here are a bunch of other characters that appear in this book, all of whom are better characters than Darrow:
Sevro, aka Goblin, a manic, slightly deranged man-child with a loyal streak and a heart of gold. He collects eyeballs, apparently. I don’t know why. He serves as a sort of check on Darrow; he tries to warn Darrow on several occasions that the latter is not infallible…what a load of horseshit. He clearly is. Hey, I never said Sevro was honest, just loyal. Fans of “shipping” and homosexual undertones will love this character. Let’s just say he’s the Watson to Darrow’s Sherlock and leave it at that.
The Jackal. Apart from boasting the coolest nickname in a book filled with too many of them (seriously, every major character seems to have a catchy nickname of some kind), he is possibly the book’s most interesting character, and benefits from some of Pierce Brown’s best descriptive writing. He moves like a reptile over ice, he has eyes like two smooth, worn coins, et cetera. He is also a sociopath, but not in an in-your-face, over-the-top evil kind of way. In fact, he may be one of the only sociopathic characters in fantasy fiction I can think of who is so…mild. He’s not exceptionally cruel, he’s simply a character without empathy, which is a subtle but important distinction that Pierce Brown really seems to understand. He’s supposed to be some kind of a badass, but Darrow is always saving his ass. Oh,well. He’s still pretty cool.
Mustang (see what I said about those nicknames?) More experienced and weathered authors than Pierce Brown have failed at creating compelling love interests (so often do they devolve into either the pure angel or saucy, snarky wench stereotypes), so it is to Golden Son’s credit that the love interest here, Mustang, is so well-written as she is. She has wit, frequently exchanging barbs with Darrow and other characters, but she also shows real vulnerability, which I appreciate. Too often does it seem that people equate “strong female character” with a female character without weakness. But strength is not the absence of weakness—it’s how you deal with your weaknesses and doubts. Kudos to Pierce Brown for this character.
Tactus, a needed bit of comic relief in a violent and bloody piece of fiction. But more than that–Tactus is a character with surprising depth and pathos. Another prime example of how Pierce Brown devotes time to fleshing out his minor characters, and it pays off.
Lorn Au Arcos, a character probably inspired by Barristan Selmy from Game of Thrones. He used to be the world’s best warrior, but now he’s old and out of place in a turbulent, changing world. Pierce Brown takes the archetype of the wise old mentor and serves up a mentor who is wise, but also shows his age–a man who has fallen out of touch and is at risk of becoming an anachronistic relic. It’s a more realistic and interesting take on the whole mentor concept, and it works well. Surprisingly, this character doesn’t have a nickname.
These are only some of the many vivid characters that populate Pierce Brown’s novel. I could list more, but it might be simpler to say that Brown is skilled at taking stereotypical roles (the noble poet, the sidekick, the seductress, the aged mentor, etc.) and toying with them so they feel fresh and compelling. Why he couldn’t do this with his protagonist, too, is quite beyond me. My best guess is that he was trying to create a second Ender Wiggins–Orson Scott Card’s ruthlessly brilliant boy-genius protagonist. But Ender started to go mad under the pressure put on his shoulders. Darrow just…mopes a bit, then goes back to excelling again.
Characters are only a part of the equation that makes a good book, even if they are arguably its most important part. The writing, plot, and themes also have a large role to play. We’ll look at that next.