Two months ago, I was sentenced by my office book club to read a dystopian YA novel, Red Rising, by newcomer (and now millionaire) Pierce Brown. A few chapters in, I discovered that it was certainly one of the most unoriginal, badly written novels I’ve ever read. Hyperbole, perhaps–to be fair, though, I was not a regular consumer of dystopian YA novels and I was not the intended audience in the first place; however, I was a regular consumer of literature and as far as I was concerned, Red Rising was an abomination to that institution as I knew it.
Firstly, the book is a Harry Potter and Hunger Games hybird/rip-off. I’m sure Brown would prefer the term homage, but we all know better. Yes, dystopian/science fiction/fantasy YA is a genre populated by literary theft, but Brown’s theft of very recent popular YA is almost too obvious to overlook.
Like most dystopian heroes who start from the bottom (i.e., Drake), Brown’s protagonist, Darrow, lives on Mars and is born Red–the lowest caste in a politically and socially repressive color-coded society ruled by the highest caste, the Golds. As though to beg for Hunger Games comparisons, Darrow works in the mines with other Reds in terrible conditions. One day, Darrow’s young wife, Eo, sings a song of political dissent and she is brutally executed by the Golds. Darrow, viewing Eo’s death as a sacrifice, buries his wife against the law (as the law says that traitors should not be buried because well, Antigone), and is also executed–only to find himself saved by secret rebel society, the Sons of Ares, who aim to break down the injustice the Golds have brought upon people of other colors.
The Sons then transform Darrow into a Gold so he can join the Institute and become a political superstar. At the Institute, Darrow is–get this–sorted into the House of Mars and I wondered why Brown didn’t just go ahead and name the school “Hogwarts” and the house “Gryffindor.” The Institute turns out to be a battlefield where the strong will prevail by killing the weak because, well, Brown read Hunger Games. There is also a scene where a girl nurses Darrow back to the health in a cave (if memory serves me correct) as a romance brews and at that point, I had hoped Brown at least sent Suzanne Collins a thank you card and a gift basket.
Secondly, I found Brown’s prose frustrating to read. He’s one of those brave souls who has the balls to write in first person present. Any sane person would know that writing in first person present is difficult–and Brown is certainly no master at it. Oftentimes, Darrow, his narrator would seemingly be able to read the mind of the other characters, without any explanation of why he came to that conclusion, which makes us all wonder–is his narrator hiding psychic powers from the reader? Unlikely, or else Brown would have some plot holes to defend. Also, Brown could not write a decent simile as readers are forced to trudge through description such as, “My wolfcloak is as as white as the falling slow. I’ve pulled its head up, so I look like a guardian creature from the colder levels of hell.” What is exactly is a guardian creature from the colder levels of hell? Beats me. Or this: “The men are freakishly muscular and tall. Their arms and chest beat with artificial strength, and they flaunt their muscles like girls showing off new toys.” I still have no idea what that simile is trying to say and honestly, I don’t care, because much of Brown’s attempts at poetic flourishes are ill-conceived and add nothing to the story, even if they had worked.
To make matters worse, my co-worker also dug up a Buzzfeed interview with Brown where the writer came off as pretentious and obnoxious with an aura of self-proclaimed boy wonder-ness. Here is just a taste of how Brown proved to be the worst:
“I was reading the story of Antigone,” he says before correcting himself. “Re-reading the story of Antigone.”
I went to the book club with so much ammunition for the book I’ve just read and looked forward to commiserating over the book’s shittiness, only to find out people absolutely loved it–loved it so much, some of them have even read the sequel. I was shocked as, going in, I was sure that I’ve read an unlovable book. I read a book that felt akin to a frat boy’s vile wet dream–an ardent blowjob to fanboy fanaticism at its most graphically violent and stupid; sure, there were pleads for love, for sympathy, but I was having none of it. So yes, I still believe that Red Rising is a terrible book–badly written, and worst of all, written by an unskilled literary thief.
Yet, I knew, deep down, Brown had a knack for character, setting, and plot. For a writer who struggled to convey any of that with style, I still knew that he had a deep understanding of the nuts and bolts of what makes a story a story worth reading–he just hasn’t had the chance to fully unleash that.
As fate would have it, Red Rising’s sequel, Golden Son was the March office book club selection. Due to my dedication to my office book club (it’s the only way I can consistently force myself to read a book once a month), I started reading it. And a miracle happened.
With Golden Son, Brown has written the best possible sequel for one of the shittiest books I’ve ever read.
Golden Son is spectacular. Spectacular, in the sense that Brown patiently concocted a fully realized political government that pays true homage to the history (and legend) of the Roman Empire. In Brown’s very political solar system, the characters are living, breathing chess pieces–with vivid hearts and minds, ready to kill and conquer, but also to love and protect when necessary. Unlike Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic or Hunger Games’ Capitol, Golden Son’s government is not merely a plot device, nor does it exists to serve a function–it’s an integral part of its story and its universe is infinitely richer because of it.
Without giving too much away, Darrow finds himself closely allied with ArchGovernor Nero au Augustus–the man who ordered his late wife’s execution and the father of the woman he fell in love with at the Institute. Darrow also finds himself allied with his former nemesis from the Institute, who is also the ArchGovernor’s black sheep son. Darrow becomes a target of the Sovereign of the solar system, who is out to strip Augustus of his power and replace Augustus with the Bellona family–a family out to kill Darrow who was forced to kill their son at the Institute. Despite everything, Darrow’s goal is to save the Reds and destroy the Golds by creating civil war among the Golds as a way to eventually render justice in the entire solar system within the castes.
That’s just a taste of the alliances and betrayals that populate this ambitious, complex novel. All of this adds up to some delicious scenes between enemies and allies: the first time Darrow and his former nemesis meet in the novel, the engaging psychological showdown between Darrow and the Soveriengn, and the finale–oh, what a finale!
Not to say that the sequel doesn’t have all the weaknesses that permeate the first novel. Some of Brown’s attempts to write elongated, descriptive passages fall on the weight of its own poetic ambitions; however, unlike his previous effort, some of his attempts do result in inspired prose. Brown’s battle scenes remain chaotic and sometimes incoherent; he has still yet to find that balance between what it means to convey chaos versus writing chaotically to a point of confusing the reader as to what exactly is happening in the scene. Also, there is too much wish fulfillment going on in many of the battle scenes–Darrow’s gut feeling is often too spot-on for a country boy fighting for his life in a high-stakes world.
But Brown’s writing soars in the quiet moments when he lays his characters bare in front of us–without the sci-fi gadgets, without the violence. When his characters are desperately trying to keep an alliance, gain trust, pursue loyalty, do the right thing, contemplate doing the wrong thing–that’s when Brown appears to have a startlingly deep understanding of the morally ambiguous human psyche. And Brown, as the creator of his universe and the characters who inhabit it, knows that the human tendency for moral ambiguity is both a frightening and sometimes beautiful thing as he allows his characters to struggle as much as with themselves as with each other.
And, in retrospect, Red Rising built up to the world the characters in Golden Son inhabit, so Red Rising was a necessary evil. Without Red Rising, the revelations in Golden Son would not be nearly as rich or as powerful.
I don’t know if Pierce Brown will ever get off my famous people shitlist (because of the Buzzfeed interview), but with Golden Son, he has written a novel that is not only a dystopian sci-fi/fantasy novel, but a thrilling emotional adventure as well. And I give credit when it’s due; maybe he is the boy wonder he thinks he is after all. So start reading the series before they fly off the shelves once the movie trailer comes out.