Cover for Morning Star by Pierce Brown

Darrow would have lived in peace, but his enemies brought him war. The Gold overlords demanded his obedience, hanged his wife, and enslaved his people. But Darrow is determined to fight back. Risking everything to transform himself and breach Gold society, Darrow has battled to survive the cutthroat rivalries that breed Society’s mightiest warriors, climbed the ranks, and waited patiently to unleash the revolution that will tear the hierarchy apart from within.

Finally, the time has come.

But devotion to honor and hunger for vengeance run deep on both sides. Darrow and his comrades-in-arms face powerful enemies without scruple or mercy. Among them are some Darrow once considered friends. To win, Darrow will need to inspire those shackled in darkness to break their chains, unmake the world their cruel masters have built, and claim a destiny too long denied—and too glorious to surrender.

Disclaimer: I have to admit I did not keep any notes during the reading of this series, so a lot of my recollections are gonna be vague and non-specific. Frankly, this review is mostly for me so I remember roughly how I felt having completed this series if ever I look back and wonder about it.

Red Rising. I don’t know about you, dear reader (… is there anybody out there…), but among my circle of friends, this series got no shortage of hype. One friend even put the series up there with A Song of Ice and Fire on his list of all-time favourite series1. I’ve seen folks praise the world building, the plot, the characters, and of course, Darrow himself.

But I admit it: I honestly just don’t get it.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly decent! Clearly good enough that I was willing to dedicate myself to reading all three books in the series.

But I just don’t understand the hype.

First off, I will say, the world building in Red Rising is pretty well executed. The whole “Roman empire in space” idea is far from an unplowed field at this point (hell, Star Trek explored the concept in the 1960s, and I guarantee they weren’t the first), but the particular formulation in this series is very well realized.

Certainly the idea of the Colours, while a thinly veiled metaphor for present-day racism and caste systems, makes for a nice setup for the core conflict that propels the series forward. And the idea of humanity returning to a fascist dictatorship to find peace and stability is painfully relevant these days.

But in a lot of ways I feel like Brown missed some significant opportunities in using the setting to actually explore the ideas he put forth.

Beginning at the beginning, let’s face it, the first book is a knock-off of The Hunger Games. And in that sense, it was by far my least favourite book in the series. Darrow, himself, is a cardboard cutout of a character, driven by the single motivation of avenging the death of his wife. Meh. Boring. But, hey, he’s basically a kid, so I suppose we can excuse that fault. Unfortunately, with the notable exception of Sevro and Pax, the supporting cast is similarly fairly dull.

By the way, as a general note, Adrius, aka the Jackal, is the most exhaustingly one dimensional villain I’ve recently experienced. Yes, we get it, he has daddy issues. Yes, we get it, he’s a sociopath. Oh right, and he’s also a tactical super-genius. And did we mention he’s a sociopath? And he has daddy issues? Ugh.

The second and third books in the series significantly widen the scope of the narrative, but in the end it’s still Darrow’s story, and what’s so very peculiar is we never come to truly understand why the hell he does what he does (or maybe I just never bought it). Yeah, sure, he occasionally says the right things about freedom and whatnot. But never once does it feel like Darrow’s actions are actually propelled by an internalized set of views, despite the first person perspective of the book. It’s actually pretty amazing that Brown managed to create such a shallow, one-dimension character when we, the reader, spent so much time in his head.

The same, oddly, is true of Mustang as well. In fact, it isn’t until the epilogue in the last book that a plausible explanation is offered for her turning on the Society, and even that explanation is incredibly trite.

And so our two primary heroes are in a very real sense an enigma.

Worse, throughout the books, where there were opportunities for real character growth, the development felt under-realized, perfunctory, almost lazy.

For example, in the last book, we see both Cassius and Sevro experience specific turning points in their values and beliefs, values and beliefs held for, by this point, nearly two full books. In the case of the former, the reader is offered a single scene to explain the transition. In the case of the latter, no explanation is offered at all! And then, suddenly, these two characters, who have demonstrated those beliefs for the bulk of the series, suddenly change their respective tunes.

Darrow, too, goes through similar experiences. For example, at one point, having gone through torture, you’d think Brown might touch on ideas of PTSD, or the self-doubt that might come from such a profound fall. Instead, Darrow gradually returns to form (mostly in background scenes only alluded to), and then it appears he’s just back to the way he was without showing any real transformation.

But where I think Brown really misses a chance is in the Colours themselves. There is not a single main character who is from another Colour caste! And only a handful of side characters who make occasional appearances and then exit stage left. What do the Blues think of the rising? Or the Greens or Yellows? Here there was an opportunity to do what science fiction can do so well: explore present day issues in a novel setting. But alas, no, another opportunity missed.

On top of those faults, the books also suffer from one of my most hated failings: a horrible tendency to try and surprise the reader with artificial “twists”, where the characters arrange some plot off-screen (my favourite is when the characters begin a conversation at the end of a chapter, and then at the start of the next chapter the conversation is alluded to but the reader is never actually privy to the details), and then the reader is left guessing as to what’s going on. We’re then meant to be surprised when the plot reveals itself, usually through some subterfuge where we’re meant to be tricked along with the villain, and then dazzled by how clever our heroes are.

I cannot express how lazy this style of writing is. By far more effective is to let the reader in on the plot and then, as it takes shape, make us question whether it will work. But, no, Brown takes the easy way out time and time again.

Talking it through with my wife Lenore, I think a lot of these issues come down to a single structural flaw in the series: That it’s written entirely from Darrow’s first person perspective. Written that way, it’s extremely difficult to see the journey of Mustang or Sevro or Cassius or the other colours because, unless Darrow is there, those events must necessarily happen off-screen. In a series with a large cast of characters, where their individual journeys actually matter, the first person perspective just doesn’t work all that well.

And so, in the end, while I enjoyed the series, I found the whole thing… shallow. The characters were shallow. Their journeys were shallow. The exploration of the Society, and the issues it raised, also shallow. Even the plot twists were shallow. And that’s a shame. Because with such rich world building, and an interesting core conflict, there was a real opportunity to show fascinating character development and interesting points of view, to explore challenging issues, to present the reader with genuine ethical dilemmas. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the books simply don’t live up to that potential.

  1. Though I have to confess, that comparison doesn’t score points for me. I’ve frankly never fully understood the insane fandom that series has earned…