Light Bringer by Pierce Brown
In my review of the fifth RED RISING book, The Dark Ages, I said that Pierce Brown’s series was beginning to feel its length. Brown is out now with that book’s sequel, Light Bringer, and I’d say that description holds even more true, even if there’s lots of good writing here.
The issue I’m having with these later books isn’t with the individual titles themselves. Considered on its own, Light Bringer brings the same strengths that made books one-four so fantastic: well-drawn characters who change over time; wildly, prolifically fertile imaginings of future technology, huge space opera battle scenes and smaller but no less tense one-on-one duels, a good sense of balance between those loud, boisterous action scenes and much more quietly introspective moments with characters having meaningful conversations in pairs or single characters communing with their own interior demons and fears; a propulsive and explosive (literally) plot with a host of twists and turns; betrayals, alliances, and deaths oh my, and more.
Brown showed out of the gate with book one, Red Rising, that he was a good writer, and that hold just as true now. So again, withing the pages of this singular book, there’s a lot to like. But, and this is the key element, this isn’t a stand-alone novel. It’s the sixth in a series with at least one more to go. And the problem, which was also a problem in the Dark Ages and now is worse of one due to the cumulative effect, is that all of what happens now feels fully familiar and even predictable in its unpredictability (trust me, it does make sense). Those battle scenes are good, but I’m not sure I could distinguish them at all from any of the sundry lot that come before. The same goes for the betrayals, the duels, the “our hero (Darrow or others) is doomed!” moments, or the “our hero miraculously turns the tables/is rescued!” moments. To Brown’s credit, the characters change, but the plot elements are starting to feel like we’re going through a rotation.
In a somewhat similar vein, other aspects are having this sort of cumulative effect. The first few times a major character loses a leg or an arm or is stabbed in the chest and then through the miracle of science comes back just as good (or stronger) than before it’s kind of a shock and then cool. But now when I read someone has their arm cut off, I just shrug: “ho hum, they’ll grow a new one or get a fancy metal one in the next chapter.” Meanwhile, the incredibly frequent nature of these graphic injuries is both numbing and also starting to feel a bit, let’s say, disturbing, in its focus, and the same holds true for the more faceless scale of the deaths, which number in the millions. Probably tens to hundreds of millions. The characters remain the highlight of this series: Darrow, Cassius, Sevro, Lyria especially are compelling creations both in their individual personas and in their relationships (shifting relationships) with each other. But for the first time in this series I was tempted to skim through the action scenes.
Meanwhile, while I won’t go into the plot details as a) I don’t want to spoil things and b) as usual they’re just too much of it to try to recap even shallowly, it’s beginning to have the same problem as the action scenes. I loved how the fourth book in this series shows us the successful underdog rebels having to deal with winning: we get to see the actual struggle that comes with the collapse of a structured society rather than just have it be an amorphous “and they must have lived happily ever after” implication. The struggle continues here, but rather than feel like an extension or deepening of the problem, it just feels like the same problem still happening. Certainly one of the themes here is that Darrow is growing (as are others) and is finding a new way to deal with these problems, but a lot of it, no matter what he says or thinks, still ends up with someone sticking the point end of something into someone else, or shooting them, or blowing up their ship, or their cities.
So what does all that mean? Well, I can’t imagine anyone stopping at book five of this series, and this certainly won’t make you stop here. Nor should you. As noted, on its own, this is a very good book. And I’ll certainly look forward to its sequel. But I’ll do so hoping it isn’t just book seven but the concluding book seven, and probably with a bit of wistfulness that the series had been compressed into four or five rather than seven. Not just because it feels like it’s spinning its wheels and starting to go over the same ground (yes, I know those two don’t work together) or because despite my criticisms here I’m sure he will pull off a fantastic conclusion. Beyond those points, I’m simply eager to see Brown turn his hand to another story/group of characters to see what he can do with wholly fresh material. So I look forward to the conclusion of this mostly excellent series, and to the start of something new.
[Box]Published in July 2023. The Reaper is a legend, more myth than man: the savior of worlds, the leader of the Rising, the breaker of chains. But the Reaper is also Darrow, born of the red soil of Mars: a husband, a father, a friend. Marooned far from home after a devastating defeat on the battlefields of Mercury, Darrow longs to return to his wife and sovereign, Virginia, to defend Mars from its bloodthirsty would-be conqueror Lysander. Lysander longs to destroy the Rising and restore the supremacy of Gold, and will raze the worlds to realize his ambitions. The worlds once needed the Reaper. But now they need Darrow, and Darrow needs the people he loves—Virginia, Cassius, Sevro—in order to defend the Republic. So begins Darrow’s long voyage home, an interplanetary adventure where old friends will reunite, new alliances will be forged, and rivals will clash on the battlefield. Because Eo’s dream is still alive—and after the dark age will come a new age: of light, of victory, of hope. [/box]