There’s not a lot to say about the plot of Pierce Brown’s Golden Son, the sequel to the fantastic Red Rising, because outside of the density and complexity of the story, which would necessitate a lot of summary space, Brown fills the novel with so many twists, turns, backstabs and back-back stabs that it would be difficult to offer up a synopsis that both gives a true sense of what happens and does not at the same time give spoiler after spoiler. So let’s just say the plot is, well, dense and complex, is filled with twists and turns, and is almost entirely (but not quite entirely) a strength in the book. And we’ll move on to why it is an excellent follow-up that suffers not in the least from the dreaded second-book-of-a-trilogy syndrome.
The plot picks up two years after the close of Red Rising (btw, re-reading that first book is not a bad idea, thanks to the plethora of characters and aforementioned complexity of plot and setting), with Darrow, the Red-turned-Gold mole, about to graduate from the academy as its number one student and thus gain himself a fleet which he and the Sons of Anarchy can turn against the Golds and their horribly unjust social system (and hey, if none of that makes sense to you, get thee to book one and stop reading this). Unfortunately, things go awry and Darrow will have to find some other, much more difficult way to overturn society. Since we’re not talking plot here, let’s just say he makes a concerted, lengthy, valiant effort to do just that, with help from some old friends (including Mustang, Sevro, Roque), some old enemies (the Jackal), and some brand new characters. He’s also beset by some old enemies, some new ones, and some old friends turned new enemies (and no, I’m not telling).
The action is pretty relentless, though Brown gives us space to breathe with some nice quiet moments between characters that sometimes deepen, sometimes confuse, relationships. The book is long and does, admittedly, feel its length, but the pacing is mostly spot on, with only a few times it maybe lagged a bit, though some of that will depend on one’s patience with space opera battles or one-on-one duels, both of which Brown handles with some impressive artistry. The density and complexity of the plot, and its several spins and backspins, make for some stimulating reading. My one complaint though is that by halfway through the book it felt like it was falling into a definite and unfortunately predictable pattern of rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall, with the falls almost always coming right when a peak was seemingly about to occur. This bled the latter half of some suspense, as I could see pretty clearly what was coming (the generality of it if not the specifics) and when.
Darrow remains a compelling and richly complex character, forced into one terrible situation after another where simplistic ethical formulations just won’t cut it. He holds back on his friends, he treats with his enemies, he causes untold deaths (seriously, we’re talking major casualty counts here) and he wonders all along if any of these choices are the right ones. And he constantly fights against becoming that which he intends to destroy:
This is so far from the future I imagined for myself as a boy. So far from the future I wanted to make for my people when I let the Sons carve me. I thought I would change the worlds. What young fool doesn’t? Instead, I have been swallowed by the machine of this vast empire as it rumbles inexorably on.
If the first book was much about the rage at the system, with Darrow mostly having to simply survive in order to have a chance at change, here, that survival aspect remains but he, and the reader, are also forced to confront the idea of just what does that “change” mean? How does it happen? Who does such change benefit? Who does it harm? The answers are not, as you might guess, the overly simplistic obvious ones. Darrow’s role is also complicated by an apparent split in the Sons of Ares, leading to some horrendous acts that make both Darrow and the reader question whether the ends justify the means.
Again, I had one single complaint here with regard to Darrow, and that was that at times his first-person narration was too on the nose, revealed too much that would have been better shown by action rather than monologue or even simply left a bit hazy.
Other characters aren’t quite as fully drawn, mostly a result of the first person narration, but nearly all are given more than merely adequate development and several, such as the Jackal, Victra, Darrow’s mentor Lorn, and others, including some of those old friends, are particularly strongly characterized, making them sometimes moving, sometimes fascinating, sometimes both.
The world built around Darrow deepens and broadens as well. While Red Rising was set entirely on Mars, Golden Son darts around the solar system, moving between planets and moons, giving us a sense of this empire and its tattering edges. We also learn more about the color society, particularly the Obsidians, but also the blues and oranges.
The writing, as with Red Rising, is a major strength. Brown displays an equally capable hand whether he is writing an exciting battle scene, a stirring speech, a grievously moving death moment, or a bevy of other scene types. All are handled with verve and aplomb, shifting tone and style as need be and employing language that is vivid and precise, and buttressed now and then by an original and/or thought-provoking metaphor.
I absolutely loved Red Rising, and I can’t say Golden Son quite reached that same point due to its felt length and the eventually predictable rhythm of its plotting, but it doesn’t fall short by much. It ends in a cliff-hanger, but also, somewhat paradoxically, can stand well on its own, wholly avoiding that bridge-book plague of many second books. I absolutely can’t wait for the next book. Highly recommended.
Great review! It’s both reassuring and refreshing to hear that this book avoids the typical problems that beset most second installments of a trilogy.