Dark Age (2019) is Pierce Brown’s fifth installment in his Homeric-styled RED RISING space opera, and it comes pre-loaded with many of the set scenes fans have come to expect: major space battles, desperate fights against overwhelming odds, brutal deaths and torture scenes, labyrinthian scheming, verbal volleys nearly as nasty as the physical ones (though with less decapitation), great names, the slaughter of millions, painful introspection. It’s all here and all handled with the same effectively, skillfully bombastic style as the prior four novels in the series.
Which is both the strength and weakness of this latest episode. On the one hand, all of those story elements, combined with Brown’s stylistic gifts, are what have made this series so compulsively readable. On the other hand, for the very first time in this series, the propulsive nature of the story began to flag for me as I started to feel I’d been down these paths before (either in the series, in this book, or both), that Brown was going a bit too often to the same well here. That Dark Age is the longest book in the series, coming in at nearly 800 pages, probably contributed to some of my sense of wheel-spinning, though I’ll note that despite some impatience, I did finish the book in two sittings.
I’m not going to go into much detail regarding plot because a) I want to avoid spoilers for the first few books and b) as Brown’s fans know, his plotting involves wheels within wheels within octahedrons within dodecahedrons within decagrammic antiprisms. Suffice to say that, big picture, the solar system remains at war, with Darrow — abandoned by his own government and thus grossly outnumbered and outgunned — fighting on Mercury, and Virginia (Sovereign and Darrow’s wife) fighting on Mars to keep the new Republic together while trying to convince a recalcitrant Senate to go to her husband’s aid. Meanwhile, subplots pile up as good people, bad people, good people who do bad things (which includes the aforementioned folks) and bad people who do good things all try and scheme their way into power or out of desperate situations, like being kidnapped (Darrow and Virginia’s son Pax) or imprisoned (Lyria). If those names only call up vague memories, there’s a helpful glossary of the large cast of characters.
From there the book, as has been the pattern, bounces back and forth between those sort of operatic action scenes and more character-based scenes.
Each of those can be further subdivided, with the former switching between one-on-one duels and massive assaults that destroy entire cities. The latter, meanwhile, moves amongst sometimes tense, sometimes moving scenes between characters and interior monologues/introspectives, often filled with fear, self-doubt, and even self-loathing.
Individually, each of these various types of scenes play out fine; the battles are exciting, the escapes harrowing. But when one starts to expect another harrowing, by-the-thinnest-of-margins escapes, or when one predicts another as-close-to-fatal-wound-as-one-can-get-that-will-end-up-not-being fatal, that’s when the problems start. And while the introspections are indeed revealing of character, they do sometimes slide into what has been one of the few consistent minor issues I’ve had throughout the series, which is that these monologues sometimes tell us what we already know, or what might be better shown less bluntly or forthrightly. I love what Brown is showing through these monologues (and sometimes dialogues) — characters struggling with doing bad in order to do good. And the question of whether or not Darrow can still claim the mantle of “hero,” which has been earlier raised, is here brought into its full thoughtful glory. I just wish the reader got to struggle a bit more with it as well (not that Brown answers that question — just that the characters’ thoughts can sometimes crowd out the reader’s). And finally, I could have done with a little less bringing back of the past, though I won’t go into details on that, and though I do recognize that the way the past haunts the present is one of the major themes.
Dark Age is by no means a bad book. The action, plotting, and character depth are all quite strong, despite issues of pacing and repetitiveness. That it is in my mind one of the weaker installments is more testament to the strength of the rest of the series, and also due to Brown at this point competing with himself. My complaint isn’t that this newest episode is bad, but more so that for the first time it didn’t all feel wholly necessary. That said, another book clearly is entirely necessary, and I’m still looking forward to that.