ATTENTION! This review contains SPOILERS for Red Rising, the first book in the Red Rising Trilogy.
Golden Son is the second book in Pierce Brown’s future fantasy set of books, The Red Rising Trilogy. In the future he envisions, humanity is strictly stratified, not merely in role but by carefully engineered genetics. Blues are pilots and astronavigators, Yellows are doctors and scientists. Violets are artists. Coppers are administrators, Grays are the police corps, and so on. At the bottom of the hierarchy are the Reds – unskilled laborers bred for brutal environs. At the top are the Golds, who are the fiercely intelligent and finely honed rulers of humanity.
In Red Rising, the first book of the trilogy, we meet Darrow, a lowly Red. He and his family, his neighbors, the girl he loves, everyone he knows are miners, working and living underground on Mars. The miners’ lives are hard and sparse; the work is back-breaking and dangerous, material goods are meager and used as bait by the off world corporations who run the mines, and the sky is just a storybook idea for children and dreamers.
But when Eo, the girl Darrow is to marry, finds an opening to the surface and discovers that everything the Reds have been told about life above ground is a lie, Darrow’s life changes drastically. The punishment for Eo’s transgression is hanging, and in her death a revolution is born. Undone by his grief, Darrow vows revenge, and finds himself the tool of a highly secretive movement known as the Sons of Ares. He is genetically altered and re-engineered to look like a Gold in order to infiltrate and undermine the very foundations of Society.
Red Rising tells the tale of Darrow’s beginnings, his transformation, and his triumph at the Institute – a harsh and pivotal proving grounds for Gold youth. Upon his success at the Institute, he is offered a place in House Augustus, to clandestinely answer to the very man who ordered Eo’s death.
Golden Son picks up where Red Rising left off, and it immediately jumps right into the story, with no real exposition (make sure you read Red Rising first, or you’ll be hopelessly lost). It turns out that getting into the upper echelons of Society is the “easy” part – Gold politics and the machinations that surround the struggle for power and influence are just as cutthroat as the war games that honed Darrow’s skill and reputation at the Institute. To keep from being exposed and to move forward in his plans of freeing the Reds and ushering in a more egalitarian society proves not only difficult, but exceedingly dangerous. Time after time Darrow has to make decisions that seem foolhardy or even crazy, but ultimately prove successful – yet at a huge cost. And through it all, Darrow must remember what it is that he is really fighting for – an effort that threatens to tear him apart as brutally as the aggressive forces that swirl around him.
As with Red Rising, Golden Son is a fast moving, entrenched story that encapsulates motivated ambition without sacrificing heartfelt emotion and sorrow at actions that must be taken. Darrow never does forget where he came from, and his isolation gnaws at him more perniciously, perhaps, than the malice afforded him from adversaries and mishandled friends alike. Ultimately, for every stunning success he achieves, an even harsher failure follows, for betrayal and sabotage is a way of life at the top, and his unwillingness to give in to the savagery necessary to best all others at any cost makes him a target for those who are jealous or frightened by the reputation that follows the strange young man allegedly from a forgotten family who nevertheless gains the rank of Peerless Scarred and the popular title of Reaper.
Author Brown again gives us a future world that we see echoed in our own society – where the cards seem stacked against those who dare to think beyond their own place in the hierarchy, and where a small percentage of the population, to whom all things have been given, use those below them (and indeed, even those who are next to them) as pawns in a vicious play at gaining even more than what they already have. For the Golds, true loyalty is rare, and collaborations are only as strong as the advantage each side can take with them when they leave the table. There is honor, yes, but it is unhesitatingly cut down when there is an edge to be taken from it. This truly is a frightening vision of our future.
The writing is agile and fast moving, without sacrificing tenderness and the angst of moral uncertainty. Although the book seems at times to be one long, snaking conflict, it never bogs down in rote battle scenes; each one is memorable in its own cause and effect. Nor does Golden Son overreach into unbelievable resolutions or sensationalism. Darrow’s continual soul searching could become maudlin in lesser hands, but Pierce Brown manages to keep it fresh while at times still allowing it to be touchingly raw and even heartbreaking. It’s so refreshing to have a hero who does not lose sight of who he is and where he has come from, yet who understands that he cannot be the person he was if he wants to change his world.
I can’t help thinking, for better or worse, that Darrow is a character much like Luke Skywalker – a young man, barely more than a boy, who is plucked from obscurity to respond while the weight of the future settles on his shoulders. (Don’t take the analogy too far… it breaks down very quickly.) And if Red Rising is akin to Star Wars’ A New Hope, then Golden Son is indeed much like The Empire Strikes Back: the struggle of Darrow and the Sons of Ares is far from over by the final page, and in fact, despite all the best of intentions and all the struggles and even the triumphs, the situation still remains unsure and very, very dire, as if all hope is dashed even as it glimpses a crack in the armor of fate.
Riveting stuff, this. The Red Rising Trilogy is an able contender for the hearts of those who appreciate the sci-fi/fantasy/future fiction genre, and Golden Son is an admirable middle volume in what is proving to be a gripping and highly enjoyable series. I’m not totally convinced that Darrow is going to be successful in his attempts to change his world – at least not without paying perhaps too high a price in the sacrifice of himself and those he loves – but I sure as heck am looking forward to how his desperate yet heroic struggle plays out.
(Morning Star, the third book in the Red Rising Trilogy is slated for release in January 2016.)