Golden Son by Pierce Brown

Rating 7.5/10
Wonderful characters and a compelling story.

Book of the Month

You might wonder why after not exactly enjoying Red Rising I decided to read Golden Son. The first, and probably least important reason is that a book deprived childhood and a generally stubborn streak have left me with an inability to stop series mid way through, however more importantly, I have certainly come across authors whose first books are a little rough around the edges and who improve in their later work even within the same trilogy. While Red Rising certainly was rougher than most, it did have its good points, and I was hoping that Brown could expand upon these while smoothing out some of his more knotty aspects.

One thing Brown does extremely well, and another reason that I wished to continue the series, is that though the road there was a little ponderous, the potential cliff-hanger ending of Red Rising with Darrow taking apprenticeship under Nero Au Augustus, the governor of Mars did promise for some interesting developments, in particular a deeper look at the society of the Golds (since the previous book had been mostly confined to the institute).

In one sense here Brown definitely delivers, since we do see a little more of Gold society, the ethics of family loyalty, the political makeup of the system  and how different Golds treat the lower colours they are responsible for.

I was also pleased that the book begins with Darrow actually failing for once, and being humiliated into the bargain, since Darrow's constant unstoppable successes (and his first person account of these successes and why he himself is so awesome) did not endear him to me. Thus I was quite gratified at the book's opening that we seemed to be heading for a much different, far more political conflict, with Darrow's apprenticeship to house Augustus in jeopardy, and the threat of death should he lose it as house Bellona is out for his blood.

The problem however, is that while Brown implies a complex political landscape, with a sovereign ruling over all and different Gold families vying for power, his actual execution of this landscape is, like much of his writing somewhat clumsy. Only two families (plus the sovereign), are major political players and even have a large part in the story, most of the politics in the early chapters again takes the form of Darrow making large and flashy gestures, rather than subtle manoeuvres, indeed though Brown has a couple of setups for plots concerning assassination or smear campaigns, these angles are rather abruptly dropped in favour of more extreme moments of awesomeness which feel somewhat out of place. In one section for example, Darrow leaps upon a table during a political gala, gives a long and dramatic speech and challenges a rival to a duel, I found myself wondering why he wasn't being covertly escorted out, or (given what Brown says of Gold society), even directly hit by a sniper or slipped a poisoned cup.

Indeed, despite some complex sermons on the power of media, pride and the value of alliances, and Darrow's own rather cursory character conflict about how and whether to destroy the Gold society, Brown abruptly drops the political angle about a third of the way through when Darrow decides to start a civil war, something he is able to do surprisingly easily, (so easily in fact I'm a little confused as to how the society has actually stayed functional).

This brings me onto a second point, Brown's writing style and Darrow himself.

While on the one hand Brown's style did improve in Golden Son, and Darrow did seem to have a larger emotional range than just constant rage, again Brown's liking for the large and epic too often had the opposite effect from his intention.

Being told by Darrow that he is full of fear and yet how awesome he is for pushing through the fear to take on epic battle actions did not make me respect him much, likewise most of the dialogue for probably three quarters of the book took the form of long and protracted sermons on pride, power, war and control, both from Darrow and the rest of the cast. Indeed, it rather disappointed me that while Brown seemed to let go some of Darrow's tendency towards constant snark in this book, most of the dialogue read far more like pompous political rants than actual human speech. Combine this with Brown's overall lack of subtlety in emotions and I found myself feeling an active disconnection from the plot and characters.

This is sad, since one thing I will credit Brown for in Golden Son is learning from his mistakes and attempting to far more play on shifting alliances and varying friendships, indeed even Darrow's constant animosity and irritating levels of sassiness is given an explanation, even if not a justification in his desire to push people away, however again since we learn this more by Darrow explaining at length that he is pushing people away and other characters saying things like "Darrow don't push me away" the theme read far more like an author explaining character motivations than actually reading about real people.

While I did appreciate some of Brown's efforts to give Darrow a little more overall motivation than the rather trite revenge, his explanation of Darrow's desire to be a husband and father just did not feel plausible, since there has been nothing in the makeup of the ever awesome Reaper we've seen for these two books that even indicated any capacity to be a family man. As with the rape hate in Red Rising I wonder if Brown is attempting to tap more into a cultural moral standard for his characters than actually try and show his character as a person, indeed I'm a little sorry Brown didn't perhaps show Darrow interacting with a child or with a friend in a domestic setting to give us a reason to believe he could've been a father had things been different rather than just assuming (as many American films do), the magic word "family" automatically conveys sympathy. I'll also credit Brown for at least trying to have Darrow be fallible and fail in this book, although after his opening downfall at the space faring academy, nearly every failure Darrow has is undercut by his general awesomeness or by it not being his fault which again served rather to make me dislike as opposed to sympathise with him.

The war setting did let Brown explore new avenues for his action, and I did enjoy a lot of the spaceship battles and combat with advanced weapons, from drops into orbit onto a planet's surface to fights through spaceship corridors or with powered armour, even if Brown's constant attempts to create weapons without explaining much about them read a little more like a gamer with new equipment than an advanced society; since talk of force pikes, ion blades and star shells is all very well, but not when said weapons aren't much described except when flashing dramatically in combat, (I'd like to know what colour a pulse blade is). Then again, Brown's fighting style with a single handed Aegis energy shield and a morphing sword known as a Razor did work very well to make for some well described action moments rivalling the best lightsaber battles, even if I do wish Darrow had come up against people better than him a little more often.

Much as I did enjoy some of the battles from an adrenaline perspective, one problem I had was with progression. Again, with Brown's fulsome style and focus on heavy amounts of action, especially the awesome Darrow still persisting in telling us in first person present tense how awesome he is as he fights with awesome weapons doing awesome things to show what an awesome leader he can be, the flow of the book was rather off. Brown's depiction of the war was entirely lead by epic battles, and even though there were fewer actual political factions than I would've expected given Gold society's Roman style family based politics (less than ten families are even named in the book and only two are major players), there were plenty of betrayals and reversals, however Brown skipped instantly from one extreme moment to another without much in between. It also didn't help the pacing or attempt at a dark and chaotic tone that often Brown puts Darrow in a seemingly unwinnable situation then has him suddenly reveal that he's actually planning to win all the time in a pure example of Darrow ex machina.

Brown's constant stream of dramatic moments was also problematic for his characterization, since by only ever showing the calm before the storm, the storm, and then the next storm, I never really felt I got much of an impression of these people in the cold light of day, for example though Darrow's budding relationship with Mustang apparently is based on them being friends, we never see them hanging out or spending time, indeed one character who appears simply to die had literally no lines at all and very little interaction beyond combat, likewise a potential love triangle is scuppered by the fact that beyond some rather obvious flirting there really isn't much by way of actual connection or even interaction, since Darrow is usually too busy blowing things up, fighting or making political speeches. Though Brown does try to create conflicts that are mostly based on Darrow's character and relationships, I found my reaction to several betrayals or questions of betrayal be a resounding "meh" given that I had very little invested in the person doing the betraying or even what Darrow felt about them.

I will say, that despite Darrow's self obsessive awesomeness and long protracted sermons, there were one or two places where Brown did engage my emotions, mostly when he refrained from actually telling us what Darrow was feeling.One  section for example when an otherwise untrustworthy character (we know he's untrustworthy, Darrow tells us so), actually explains his genuinely tragic and rather surprising history was quite poignant. Also I liked the wonderfully quiet visit Darrow has returning to his home in the mines to meet his mother, which gives us far more of a down to earth look at the life of the Reds, and the personalities of Darrow's family; including his often idealized wife, than we ever had in the first book, as well as actually showing Darrow to have some genuine feelings rather than being an actor monologuing about those feelings. I also wish that one or two characters, such as Darrow's motherly Pink Valet Theodora, or the unorthodox Blue Captain Orion, commander of Darrow's spaceship, got a little more time devoted to them since seeing Darrow interact with people who are not either trying to kill, fight for or betray him (especially people from colours we've previously seen not much of), might have made him a little more human as well as given us more of a sense of the society as a whole. The few hints we do get about Blue academic achievement or the snobbery of different Pink gardens would be fascinating to explore further. I was actually rather sorry when Brown introduced Ragnar as Darrow's aid, Obsidian with a decidedly epic fantasy culture and motivations based on the rather tired clichés of honour, and Darrow's interactions with characters like Theodora very much fell off.

Golden Son generally is a step up writing wise from Red Rising. Brown drops most of the anachronistic fantasy elements (he also doesn't mention Crows), and the problematic gender issue, indeed the little we do learn hear about how Pinks are treated even down to them being genetically created to be easier to hurt is actually far more compelling than any long sermons from Darrow on the evils of rape. Even the main romance, despite some rather over inflated descriptions (I cannot give too much credit to any author who uses the phrase "I am a man and this is the woman I want), was a little more believable than that in Red Rising, both because Brown remembered the girl in question is a person in her own right (she escaped forced marriage rather well on her own), and because with her, Brown did keep me guessing about her trustworthiness. Though Brown's characterization feels off, one talent he definitely has as an author is playing with his characters alliances, meaning that even if the dialogue is a bit ponderous and the plot always works on epic moments, I didn't really know who would be acting on which side.

I'll also say that the violence level in Golden Son manages for the most part to stay the right side of expressive vs. excessive, although again I do wish Brown had spent a little time letting his characters breathe and showing motivations rather than  simply explaining them, indeed one sequence in which Darrow is accused of being a raging monster who just cares about revenge I actually couldn't fault, as even though Brown claims Darrow cares about people and behaves like an arse to avoid letting people in, we really didn't see much of that in Darrow or how he treated those around him, despite the fact that again we're still supposed to buy into the cult of how amazing the Reaper is.

On the one hand, Golden Son's ending was probably a more effective cliff-hanger than Red Rising, particularly since though the book's pacing slackened a little in its middle section during the war, the ending ramped up the tension again. On the other hand, while the ending was based entirely upon characters and betrayal and obviously attempted a Game of Thrones style emotional sucker punch; I simply didn't feel the punch since I'd so little invested in any of the characters.

Telling us that Darrow cares about someone and then having that person die simply did not shock me, particularly since it was fairly obvious that the ever awesome Darrow was being easily incapacitated during the ending so that Brown could deliver his attempt at emotional wallop. I will say I'm more eager to go on to the next volume, but that I'm afraid is more due to the fact that I actually want to see Darrow brought down to a more human level and perhaps to a place where I can empathise with him, rather than being the unstoppable winning machine he's been up to now, even when he supposedly loses.

In general I'll say Golden Son was an improvement over Red Rising. A couple of sequences actually engaged my emotions, the writing was cleaner, and Brown seemed to get the balance of violence and action a lot more even. The society is still very bright and colourful and one I want to explore further, though I do hope the next volume gives us more of a look at how matters not related to blowing up or chopping open other things and people in this society actually work. Brown undoubtedly does write fortissimo very well; however an entire piece, let alone an entire concerto of fortissimo simply blends into an assault upon the ears. Hopefully if Brown can learn to give his crashing action sequences and dramatic character motivations something rather quieter and stronger to background them, and intersperse his heroic battles and dramatic speeches with something gentler and more human, the series, and indeed it's less than likable protagonist will grow up in it's concluding volume, and maybe I'll stop desiring to murder Darrow in the mug.
Dark, 5/10 (I still want to kill Darrow in the face!)

Golden Son by Pierce Brown is the second book in the Red Rising trilogy, continuing the story of Darrow and his quest to bring the establishment down from within. As far as second instalments in trilogies go, Golden Son is right up there with The Empire Strikes Back, and based on the way the book plays out I think it is a fairly apt comparison. The same warning applies here as it did with Red Rising - your favourite character will probably die.

The story picks up a few years after the events of Red Rising, with Darrow completing his final exam at the space warfare academy. Darrow has started to believe in all the hype surrounding him, that he is in fact one of the most impressive beings to have graced this universe, and he is riding high on confidence. But as is often the case throughout history, the mighty fall, and Darrow falls hard. Darrow may have conquered Olympus, but his achievements have only served to make him a target in the real world, and he may be defeated before he even gets a chance to start his rebellion.

One thing Brown doesn't shy away from in these books are the philosophical questions that seem rather simple at first but get deeper and deeper the more you pick at them. If the first book was about Darrow learning to believe in himself and his abilities, then the second book is about Darrow learning how to build relationships and learn how to trust. He is now firmly entrenched as a Gold, surrounded by many people in his house, but he is more alone than ever as he tries to reconcile the need for rebellion against his knowledge that Golds are human too - that they are capable of kindness and compassion, and that they rule as oppressors for the greater good. In Red Rising we learnt that Darrow was capable of leading a rebellion, but in Golden Son Darrow is forced to confront the idea of whether or not the rebellion should happen at all. What happens if they win? Where do the people go and what do the people do when the shackles of oppression are lifted? Is the price of freedom worth it?

Something we get a lot more of in Golden Son is the cultivation of relationships, with Brown letting some grow strong while others are left to wither. The thing is, Darrow is so focused on not letting these people in and trying not to care about them that he fails to notice when people genuinely care for him, and when he pushes away those who genuinely care for him. Sure, there are big space battles and ground offensives with soldiers in exoskeletons but it is the explosive relationships that really take the breath away in this book. The Golds may have demonstrated their capacity to be human, but they are still bred to seek and stamp out weakness, and Darrow finds out the hard way that loyalty only stretches so far, and is easily discarded when you take relationships for granted.

Finally the action in this book is fantastic, containing some of the most creative set pieces I've read. The things that Darrow does in this book borders on the fantastical, but Brown writes them so realistically that it’s easy to suspend your disbelief. You don't think "ohhh that’s unlikely", you think "wow, that’s freakin awesome" (well at least that was my reaction, your reaction may vary). It is clear that Brown has drawn inspiration from a variety of different sci-fi action movies when constructing his action set pieces and you can see small subtle references littered throughout these scenes. As a scifi action movie fan, it brought me joy each time I stumble upon another reference. Great job Mr Brown, don't get cocky.

Golden Son is an improvement on Red Rising in every single facet, which is quite a feat considering how much I enjoyed Red Rising. Brown has managed to take all of the cool things we love about action oriented sci-fi, and combine them with wonderful characters and a compelling story that seems to get deeper each time I look back on it. Also, the way Golden Son ended has convinced me that Pierce Brown is some sort of sadistic monster who enjoys seeing our reactions as our favourite characters are taken away.
Ryan Lawler, 9.9/10

This Golden Son book review was written by and Ryan Lawler

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All reviews for: Red Rising Trilogy

Have you read Golden Son?

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Golden Son reader reviews

from United States

9-stars

The person who wrote the main review for this site is an idiot. They misrepresent a ton of things about this book and Red Rising. Do yourself a favor and read other reviews if you are trying to gauge if this book is a good fit for you. This person is a hack. Not saying this as a defender of the book either, I liked it a lot but I’m sure it’s not for everyone. I just can’t stand to see blatantly inaccurate reviews out there.

from America

10-stars

What makes this book fantastic is that it overcomes the young adult genre to become game of thrones...in space...without the overuse of boobs and sex. Darrow is compelling and his scenes is the best, what makes this trilogy great is that he feels more then a pawn. something in hunger games that i felt was lacking was the importance(or lack of) of katniss. she is just a symbol who really would just smile for the propaganda cameras. when she did make her own choices they ranged from stupid(allowing peeta to be anywhere near her) to suicidal(the train scene) or both(the snow mission). another thing is that this book creates compelling characters even though these characters perspectives are not touched on for a chapter. the emotional stakes feels high while the new characters hold their own against servo and darrow

8.8/10 from 3 reviews

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