I was a big fan of Pierce Brown’s RED RISING trilogy, so I was thrilled to hear he was going to continue the story with a new trio of books. And I’m happy to report that the first book in that new series, Iron Gold (2018), delivers the goods.
[Fair Warning: there will be of necessity spoilers for the first three books, so if you haven’t read those (and you should) I strongly recommend going no further in this review.]
RED RISING at its stripped-down core was the typical Downtrodden Rebels Against a Tyrannical State (DRATS!) story, though executed with atypical flair and complexity. One of the complicating factors, and one of my favorite aspects of it was how the characters struggled so much with an all-too rarely raised question in such tales: What if we win? Usually these sorts of stories end with the plucky band of underdogs overthrowing whatever oppressive mechanism they suffer under (Dystopic Govt, Evil Overlord, Wicked Witch, etc.), and the reader is left to assume all is now well with the world. But things, of course, don’t actually work that way. Nature abhors a vacuum and the fall of States and Empires is typically a messy thing (think Rome, the Ottoman Empire, the USSR, Iraq and Libya). So if you break the current world, you better have something in mind to replace it, because bad as the old world was, there’s no guarantee what follows is better.
And this is what Iron Gold is all about.
The novel is set ten years after Darrow shattered the old world of the Golds and their horrific hierarchy of colors and caste. In its place he and his compatriots have set up a Republic (if you recall, much of this future is based on the classical world), but things remain fragile. The military victory was only partial: the Ash Lord is still a powerful opposition force in control of Mercury and Venus, the Rim remains a potential threat, and guerilla violence is a regular occurrence even on the “pacified” planets such as Mars. Instead of peace, the overthrow of the Gold Sovereign only brought ten more years of war, and many of the Republic’s politicians and people are growing weary of it.
Darrow believes the Ash Lord must be destroyed no matter the cost in lives and treasure to keep the Republic safe, not only so it can continue to progress but so it can prepare for possible attack from the Rim. The Senate is split, some supporting Darrow as the Hero of the Rebellion and others thinking ten years of war is more than enough and wondering if Darrow, known as “Reaper” after all, even believes in the concept of peace. This faction is led by Darrow’s old colleague Dancer in a bit of a Cicero role.
Brown’s willingness to question Darrow, the hero of a quite successful trilogy, is the first thing I liked about Iron Gold. Certainly in RED RISING there were lots of moments when Darrow’s acts were questioned (one of the reasons that original trilogy was so good). But those were moments of self-doubt. We came to them often through Darrow’s first-person narration and given that narrative structure, and the overall context of him as leader against a vicious system, we were predisposed to root for him even as he himself was torn by some of his choices.
That continues here. “Reaper” is not the name he would choose for himself; he is haunted and scarred by the millions of deaths his war has cost. He would happily replace Hero of the Rebellion with Husband and Father if he could; he mourns his lost time with his wife Mustang and bemoans the distance he feels from a son he barely knows thanks to his long absences at war.
But more effective than his self-doubt is the way his acts and beliefs are questioned by other characters. Because Brown has broadened into a multiple POV format here, their thoughts and more importantly, their contexts serve as powerful rejoinders. We don’t just speculate about the negative impact of an endless war on the populace; we see it firsthand.
We see it through the eyes of Lyria, a young Red girl in a horrific refugee camp (and how sharply that cuts, one of Darrow’s own, betrayed and abandoned by him in her mind). We see it through the eyes of Ephraim, a veteran who fought with Darrow and was shattered by that war-time experience. And we see it through the eyes of Cassius and Lysander, wandering the outer core in exile and doing what they can to redeem their part in that old system even as they in some ways embody its lost positive qualities. It’s one thing for Darrow, in his position of power and esteem, to wonder to himself if this war is “worth it;” it’s another thing altogether to see those whose lives have been destroyed by it wonder as well. Far more poignant and biting.
It would have been easy for Brown to try to replicate his earlier success with yet another first-person narrative of the Reaper: Great Hero. Darrow after all remains a wonderfully compelling character, both in his own right and in his interactions with his usual companions like Sevro (always a favorite). So it was a risk to take us out of that single POV and to give us as well wholly new characters (as opposed to say, giving Sevro a voice). But dropping us out of the rarified air of the upper echelon and into a ground-level view of the everyday people like Lyria and Ephraim is a risk that pays off brilliantly.
I’m not going to say anything more about plot, as in usual Brown fashion its complex, full of twists, and far too stuffed to even attempt a synopsis. Suffice to say it’s propulsive and compelling no matter which storyline one is in. Iron Gold has fewer space battles (I was fine with that), but the ones we do get are just as thrilling and over-the-top. The linguistic style is similarly larger than life, a quasi-epic Shakespearean/operatic style that in another context would absolutely grate on my nerves but that mostly (admittedly not always) works here, thanks to the classical underpinning and the massive scale of the story. My one complaint, and it’s one I had with the original trilogy, is that the POV narration sometimes is too on the nose for me, revealing too bluntly things I’d rather come to as a reader more on my own.
But while I had that feeling more than a few times, it really didn’t detract much from my pleasure at all. Iron Gold is 600 pages and I whipped through it in one sitting and was sorry when it was over. Had I book two on hand, I would have picked it up immediately. Richly layered in plot and theme, told through complex characters and situations, and evoking feelings of wonder, tension, anger, and sorrow, as well as raising timely questions about our own society, Iron Gold is a triumphant return to a world we saw shattered and that now must attempt to piece together a better one.