WARNING: Contains spoilers for book two, Golden Son.
Editor’s note: This series continues with Iron Gold.
I was very excited to finally lay hands (or eyes) on Pierce Brown’s Morning Star. Picking up where book two, Golden Son, left off, Morning Star opens roughly a year after the Jackal storms into the celebration at Darrow’s Triumph, massacres Darrow’s supporters, and captures Darrow himself. While Ares has been killed, the rebellion and similarly-inspired uprisings are still alive and kicking, wreaking havoc across the solar system. But Octavia au Lune is now strengthening her power on Luna and Earth, and it’s an upward battle for the rebellion, especially since Mustang is still missing…
As in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, there’s this constant reminder that Morning Star is all about the underdogs, which keeps us on edge throughout the series. Brown paints a picture of a proletariat struggle for some higher ideal, and it’s a large part of what makes this work so powerful. Oppressed for centuries by the Gold elite, the other Colors on Mars have neither the power nor the resources to effectively overthrow a totalitarian government — but they’re doing it, and they’re doing it in the name of justice, freedom, and equality. Additionally, Brown makes sure that his rebellion versus evil empire storyline isn’t just a trope recycled from the sci-fi genre as a whole; rather, the complexity and politics in Morning Star, which is on the same level as Bill notes in his review of book two, adds a moral gray area that makes the plot all the more enticing. Because of this underlying tension between the rebellion’s principles and Octavia au Lune’s, Morning Star and the series as a whole packs a lot of emotional punch.
A lot of this thematic tension spills over into intense, internal struggles as well. Even under tremendous opposition from friends and allies, we see our protagonist, Darrow, time and time again hold to his values; even for the Golds who have profited off the labor of the Reds, Darrow still manages to find compassion and mercy. In a way, this is Darrow’s fatal flaw, his Achilles’ heel — there’s a case to be made that his downfall in the previous book arose in large part from his loyalty to and love for his friends. But even through his suffering, it’s evident that Darrow is maturing and developing in somewhat unexpected ways as he is challenged to find who he really is and develop an ethical framework that suits his principles. So Brown’s character development for all his characters, not just Darrow, is really quite spectacular. Coupled with strong and unique voicing for all the protagonists, Brown’s characters come to life in a way that makes it difficult for us not to empathize with them, which really magnified the emotional impact of Morning Star and pulls us into the story.
Unfortunately, the one aspect of Morning Star that really prevented the story from achieving its full potential is the prose. Brown’s style is sometimes too blunt, slipping into stacks of short, simple sentences that detract from the power of the scene at hand. While this is fine for some of the action scenes, it really threw off the pacing for me on a micro-level as I struggled to get through some of the other scenes in Morning Star; as a result, parts of the story just didn’t quite resonate with me while I was reading the book, even though the plot and the storyline were both stellar. This was particularly troubling in some paragraphs filled with over-the-top imagery. Though I’m all for tiny details, combing through too much minutiae delivered in sparse, slightly dull prose just didn’t hold well with me.
As I’m a very prose-driven reader, though, some of this may not be as much of a problem for other readers, especially considering that I loved Brown’s characters and plot line in the Red Rising series. For me, the writing in Morning Star pulled it down a notch, though I loved the fast-paced action, the characters, and complexity in this book. All in all, Morning Star ends with a bang that can’t be missed by any fan of Red Rising, and if you’re unfamiliar with Pierce Brown’s work, I’d highly recommend checking out book one, Red Rising, and Bill’s review!
Pierce Brown’s RED RISING TRILOGY comes to a satisfying close with the just-released Morning Star, which despite a few missteps ultimately delivers on the series’ great promise, so evidently clear from the very beginning. A few spoilers will follow for books one and two (Red Rising and Golden Son), so if you haven’t read those books, this is where you’ll want to stop reading this review and go order read those first two books, because the series is well worth your time.
Book two, Golden Son, ended with a major cliffhanger, with the series’ protagonist, Darrow, brought low at what seemed to be his highest point. It was a devastating close for our hero, and the beginning of Morning Star makes it clear things have only gone downhill for Darrow since, what with the months of torture (mental and physical), the reversal of the “carving” that made him a superhuman, and the whole thing about being kept in a tiny, tiny box. In fact, Darrow is on the verge of committing suicide when his torturer, the Jackal, decides to unbox him for some gloating and then transport to more torture. And if you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “Hmm, this sounds a bit like Han Solo getting frozen in carbonite at the end of Empire Strikes Back, being gloated over by Jabba, and…” now’s about the time you’ll wonder about the daring rescue attempt in the villain’s stronghold. And that’s just what we get, and soon, though not without cost, Darrow is back with the Rising and plotting against the Golds’ Empire. And when I say, “plotting” I mean plotting. As with the prior two novels, but especially Golden Sun, Morning Star is intricately, deeply plotted with nested schemes, red herrings, betrayals, re-betrayals, secrets, etc. I’m not going to delve into the plot, both due to its complexity and so as to avoid spoilers, but I’ll say that we see a wider spectrum of the trilogy’s universe than in the past, visit several new settings, are treated to the same operatic space battles, Dumas-like razor duels, and wrenching losses and realizations as in the earlier books. Thus, the satisfying close.
The positives are many. While some might wish for maybe one or two fewer set fight/battle scenes, there’s no doubt that Brown is a master at them, whether he’s dealing with large-scale space fleet battles or one on one hand-to-hand combat. They are epic in scope, vivid in detail, operatic in spectacle and language. One could use that same word — operatic — to describe the many relationships in the text and the language, which whether in dialog or internal monologue, often rises to a lyrical grandiloquence. As with the battle scenes, some might wish for the language to be a little less elevated, or at least less frequently so. At times one gets a sense the characters are reading/thinking from a refined script rather than simply talking or thinking, but for the most part I’d say it works quite well given the canvas, and given that the Golds’ society is built upon an idealization of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who weren’t always known for their humble nature. And it doesn’t hurt that the elevated language is paired with a lot of, well, less-elevated language (so less-elevated that there’s no way I’m quoting any of it here), especially from the mouth of Sevro, who just may be my favorite character in the series.
In fact, for all that Darrow obviously remains our protagonist, and it’s his narration that drives the book, it seems to me that in Morning Star his friends steps forward a bit more than in the past (though they’ve always been major elements) and Darrow steps back a bit. Part of that is due to that long imprisonment, which Brown nicely refuses to simply gloss over as a speed bump in the Chosen One’s progression toward success. On the one hand, it forced the other players, particularly Sevro, but others as well, to take on a bigger role in the rebellion. It also slows Darrow’s progression down purely logistically, as he has to be re-carved, has to get back to “game speed,” and has to find his place in a rebellion that had thought him dead. This last part adds a nice bit of tension between him and the rebellion’s current leaders, including his friend Sevro.
Finally, while this has always percolated beneath the surface of this story, and it really was the question of the last book, the idea of “what comes next” seems to take on a more urgent, more central role in Darrow’s thinking, at least in part due to his experience being capture and then his learning of what has gone in in his absence. The idea that there needs to be something to take the place of the Golds, that it can’t just be destruction and death, is driven home by a phrase repeated throughout the latter half of the novel: “death begets death.”
That repetition is, along with perhaps a few of the aforementioned too much/too many aspects, is another of those missteps. Once would have been fine, and certainly appropriate in the context of the novel’s events, but the repetition becomes a little too ham-handed, and this isn’t the only example of such overkill. While I’m mostly a fan of Darrow’s narration, at times he’s a bit too on the nose with things; I would have preferred to have come to certain realizations, certain emotional responses, on my own as a reader rather than be guided so directly by the narrative voice/author. And I do think the narration is a bit problematic at the ending, though I won’t say anything more for spoiler-avoidance.
The missteps though are relatively few and relatively minor, and the ending brings us to a welcome point, one that is both somewhat surprising (the degree may vary) and also somewhat inevitable if you’ve been paying attention. As a whole, the trilogy is a page-turning mix of spectacle and space opera that takes its time with its characters and isn’t afraid to take a pause from all the pulse explosions and light saber (er, razor) duels to let the wrought emotionality of scenes, both present and past (and the way the past haunts the present and perhaps the future is handled in excellent fashion throughout) linger over the reader. Morning Star is a strong close to an excellent trilogy and one I highly recommend
Editor’s note: This series continues with Iron Gold.