This review is on the entire trilogy: Red Rising, Morning Star, and Golden Son, by Pierce Brown.
First, as an author of fantasy (and some science fiction) I have to admit to jealousy. How cruel that Pierce Brown does so well, so quickly (grin).
Reminder to the first time reader of my style of reviews. I almost never give out 5 star reviews.
This sort of writing is heavily dependent on plot. Brown’s basic plot is within the tropes often used in science fiction, but that is not to say it lacks originality. The basic premise is one of class and racism, far in the future. You guessed it, a rebellion is nigh. There are some parallels to Hunger Games, but only some. However, if you like(d) Hunger Games, I believe you will like this also.
From a craft perspective, this is a very well done first person, present tense. The present tense in particular I found extremely well done–although I generally find the first person present tense limiting (more on that later). Brown’s ability to pass on back story and inner thought within the confines of present tense is quite good.
Unlike Hunger Games, where the “game” felt artificial and unbelievable in many ways, the game here is a weeding out of the top race to find the crème de la crème of the Gold race. This game is only part of the main plot of the trilogy, but it serves to keep the tension and action at a hyper level for most of the first book. Thereafter the focus is on Darrow (the protagonist) and his ability to create and lead a full fledged revolution and a number of his former friends who betray him as they figure out that he is really a “Red.”
In a time when the U.S. itself struggles with race, religion, and intolerance, where families find themselves on politically opposite sides, there are some parallels here that resonate.
I’m not going to rehash plot reviews that you can find anywhere else. Really, what was most interesting to me was the trade offs made to make this hyper-active. A page turner.
The one trade off is the tension is too hyper. The reader begins to expect the betrayal every other chapter and the near death every four chapters. Brown does a great job of maintaining this, but the characterization of the secondary characters, already at risk in a single Point of View (POV), suffers.
I would note, however, that Brown does a good job of not making all of the evil characters too evil, nor too one dimensional. This is important, especially if there is betrayal, or redemption.
Another trade off is something that Brown slips up at near the very end of the last book. I will try and phrase this in a way that does not become a spoiler. If you are first person, present tense, where the reader is in your head, it really is a bit of “breaking of the rules” to have the thoughts, and reactions (internally) to part of one of the double crosses, or tricks, be lies. To over simplify it, lets say there are two characters Tom and George. Tom is the first person present tense character. The following is melodramatic for illustration.
I couldn’t believe it when George turned and shot Janice, my love, my life, in the head. I could see the regret in George’s eyes as he did it. The steel in his resolve. I felt like throwing up.
So, this seems like a lie, if we later find out that George, Tom, and Janice were all in on this a way to fool the enemy. Yes, it’s a fun cinematic technique, but the camera is third person … not first person, in your head. This is one reason to use third person. It is very, very, hard to do this WELL in first person. If you do, you have to not be in the thoughts, just narrating the action. Brown slips up a bit on this, but it is only really noticeable in one major scene.
Sticking to only one protagonist and one POV, also removes the possibility of ticking time bombs (so to speak) that the protagonist is not aware of. These sorts of tension builders are nice to relieve the repetitive tension building of always being in physical danger, or in danger of being found out (the latter which Brown does not do enough off, or build on very much).
Finally, the milieu in the series suffers by maintaining a breakneck pace, always in the present tense, always in hyper mode. It is there, sketched out, but never fully formed. From a science fiction perspective, the Expanse series by James SA Corey (two authors) does a better job.
All in all a fun ride, with a satisfactory ending that is not too easy, nor too pat. Well worth the read.