Review by John Keegan

Book Review: Golden Son by Pierce Brown

Book Review: Golden Son by Pierce Brown

There has been a slew of YA dystopian fiction on the shelves in recent years, with a great deal of it being an obvious attempt to capitalize on the popularity of The Hunger Games and its early fellow travelers.  What many of them fail to recognize is that the parsed out nature of the society of Panem is actually one of the story’s greatest weaknesses.  Far too many subsequent efforts (I’m looking at you, Divergent) seem hell-bent on forcing a societal framework that boils down to simplified expressions of the houses of Hogwarts.

 

It can feel like the YA market is watered down for the purposes of generating the next big franchise, in a race to see whose final novel can be split into 17 parts first.  It can be easy for something more worthy to get lost in the shuffle, and it’s fair to say that Pierce Brown’s Red Rising fits in that category.  Not many have heard of it, yet few who have picked it up would call it forgettable.  And thankfully, the follow-up is just as powerful and soul-crushing, perhaps even more so for carrying forward the consequences of the first volume.




 

In the future Society of Red Rising, an elitist class of citizens has taken control of the solar system after a destructive war on Earth.  Masters of genetic and biological engineering, the “Golds” have sectioned off the masses into various “Colors”, each of which has been effectively enslaved to perform a function necessary to Gold rule.  It sounds overly contrived, and yet, it is portrayed with such confidence and thoroughness that the underpinnings work beautifully.  There’s never a doubt that the system is entirely contrived, and everyone knows it.  The non-Golds have simply been beaten down into accepting it.

 

The Society is also deliberately patterned after a pastiche of Roman and Greek lore and myth, again revealed over time as less a storytelling convenience than a symptom of the Gold mindset.  They have engineered themselves into being gods, superhuman ideals of perfection.  It never occurs to them that any of the Colors would present a true challenge to their authority, and so Darrow, a Red that has been crafted into a Gold to “break the chains”, uses the Society’s own assumptions, greed, and arrogance against it.



 

Red Rising was basically The Hunger Games by way of Game of Thrones; young Golds enter the institute, essentially get drafted into fraternity-like Houses, and then battle for supremacy.  That’s after they are immediately cut down to half their number by mandatory (and specifically chosen) duels to the death.  The battle to control the Institute is itself a bloody, sometimes fatal struggle, but the Primus of the winning House reaps major rewards.  And Darrow’s victory in the Institute was won by forging rare loyalties that, unlike most of the rising stars of the Golds, last beyond the Institute to the real world.

 

Golden Son is the story of what happens after, and much like Red Rising before it, there are twists and shocks galore.  Darrow strains friendships and forges questionable alliances, all in the name of the higher goal of destabilizing and infiltrating the halls of power.  And it is all done with a ruthlessness and violence that befits a tale of neo-Roman proportion.  Because every choice has a consequence, often a slew of them, there is never a sense of standing on solid ground.

 

 

WHAT WORKS

 

The name of the game for any middle chapter of a trilogy is “complication”, and Golden Son delivers that without hesitation.  Everything that happened in Red Rising comes back to haunt or save Darrow, and he lets his strengths and weaknesses dictate how he triples down on all of it.  Because this is following the hero’s journey in most respects, Darrow’s struggle is not nearly as easy it would appear at first glance.  This is not the kind of story where Darrow and those closest to him make it to the end of the book with maybe one or two losses; the struggle is bloody and ugly, and the body count mounts fast and hard.

 

The story unfolds at a brisk pace, and the writing style is decidedly cinematic.  You start casting actors and actresses in your mind from the first few pages.  This is only possible because the characters are so vivid and distinct; speech patterns alone are enough, quite often, to tell the reader who is speaking.  When the cast consists of dozens of people, that’s not the easiest trick, and yet Brown pulls it off beautifully.

Underlying Darrow’s entire journey is an idealism about class, race, and every other brand of social politics one might imagine.  It would be easy to have Darrow be the Great Uniter that brings all the enslaved to his banner, but it’s not that simple.  The complexity, and untold consequence, of breaking something down to reform it into something greater is seldom lost in translation.  The cost of Darrow’s war is front and center.

 

 

WHAT DIDN’T WORK

 

Any few nitpicks are most likely subjective.  One of the more irritating trends of YA fiction in recent years, and quite a bit of fiction overall, is the use of first person writing style.  I’m of the strong belief that first person is a perspective that is best used sparingly; unless the intent of the author is to frame all events through the psychological space of the main character, thus owning the unreliability of that perspective, it becomes a needless conformity to current convention.  Golden Son uses first person effectively, making it very clear how Darrow’s blind spots come back to haunt him, but for those with my wariness of first person, it might be a barrier to entry.

 

This pertains to one of the other minor nitpicks: because the story is told in first person, it’s clear that Darrow is not going to die.  As a result, every apparent lethal encounter or scenario is undercut.  Granted, this is not solely an issue with first person perspective; no one expects Harry Potter to die in the middle of his series for equally obvious reasons.  And to be true to the perspective, Darrow doesn’t know that he will survive, and therefore can’t react as though he will definitely survive.  It’s more that it can be tiresome to have the stakes constantly raised to a deadly point and have Darrow contemplate that this is the end.  It’s more the repetition that comes with the territory; again, a subjective reaction.

 

 

THE BOTTOM LINE

 

Many trilogies have middle chapters that bring on the complicating factors without managing to maintain, much less enhance, the tension of the overall story.  Golden Son stands as one of those exceptions that prove the rule; it takes everything great about Red Rising and takes it to a grander stage.  Not only that, but it ends in such a way that the reader will be screaming to the heavens in protest that the final volume isn’t waiting on the shelf!  This series is not for the faint of heart, but for those with fortitude, it comes highly recommended.


Our Grade:
A+
The Good:
  • Powerful and intense
  • A compelling yet flawed main character
  • Completely avoids the dreaded “middle chapter syndrome”
The Bad:
  • The first person perspective might bother some readers

John Keegan aka "criticalmyth", is one of the hosts of the "Critical Myth" podcast heard here on VOG Network's radio feed Monday, Wednesday & Friday. You can follow him on twitter at @criticalmyth

Review by - 1/15/2015 2:47 PM351 views

Your Responses

Registered Participants can leave their own Concurring/Dissenting Opinion and receive Points and Loot! Why not sign in and add your voice?

Comments

Log in to add your own voice and receive points by leaving good comments other users like!