WARNING: INCOMING BIAS. That’s right; I am admitting up front that the following review is biased beyond all recognition. When Pierce Brown’s first novel in the Red Rising trilogy (AKA the trilogy’s titular Red Rising) was published I was immediately enraptured by the brutal and mythical world and its protagonist, Darrow of Lykos. The novel was the perfect combination of elements from Mass Effect, Game of Thrones, and The Hunger Games filled with a rich world that I was allowed to discover and complex characters that I was allowed to witness. A year later, Brown followed up with Golden Son, the obvious Empire Strikes Back of the Red Rising trilogy complete with the most epic battle sequences – both in space and on Mars – of the whole series. Now Morning Star has been released. The final book in the series has an incredible burden to bear: bringing this sweeping sci-fi epic to a conclusion that is both narratively and philosophically satisfying, authentic, and befitting of the two novels that came before it. Dozens of characters, billions of Colors, cherished friends, despicable foes, honour, betrayal, and worlds hang in the balance. I’ll save you from the suspense: Morning Star unequivocally delivers.
Before I begin, I often talk with people about a theory I have regarding trilogies. Namely that in every trilogy the second book is often the best and the third is often the worst. This being for one very simple reason: the second book doesn’t have to set anything up (this task being accomplished already in the first novel) and it doesn’t have to resolve anything (that responsibility falling to the third and final book). As a result, the second book offers authors the opportunity to have the most fun with their story, for lack of a better term. The burden of ensuring all your stories threads weave together into a sound and satisfying conclusion does not loom over the narrative of the second book. By contrast, the third book often takes on the heavy burden of bringing everything to its end without losing momentum while simultaneously winding down all of the now far-flung and complex elements of the series. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule (and there is the ever present subjectivity that haunts all commentary and opinion on art) but I feel that this perspective on trilogies holds its weight. Novels like Catching Fire and Never Fade are prime examples of second novels that outstrip their sequels in quality and satisfaction. It was with this theory of mine in mind that I read Golden Son, making it both an exhilarating experience and one laced with trepidation. What if the Red Rising trilogy went the way of the Hunger Games or The Darkest Minds and concluded with a lackluster and dissatisfying final novel? What if Morning Star failed to continue the arc of character growth, action, philosophical development, and narrative progression as these other novels did? Despite the fact that I am sometimes optimistic to the point of blindness when it comes to any story or content that I enjoy, I worried that these what-ifs would prove to be true. Thankfully, I was bloodydamn wrong.
Morning Star is an example of a concluding novel in a trilogy that I consider to have successfully maintained the elements that made the first two so enjoyable. Golden Son still stands as the best novel of the trilogy in my opinion but Morning Star holds its own. It has the two necessary components to ensure it is a satisfying read: it does not abandon narrative or philosophical development in favour of wrapping up what’s already been accomplished. Morning Star continues to make narrative strides both with regards to its characters and with regards to the plot. Nearly all of the characters from the previous two novels, already complex and diverse from before, are given the opportunity to keep growing instead of becoming stagnant or being dismissed as though they have nothing left to offer. We see newer, softer sides to Darrow’s character emerge as the arrogance that leant itself so well to the plot of Golden Son is tempered by humility. We see tenderness from the loveably crass and indelicate Sevro. We see the deepest depths of Victra’s loyalty and the toughest layers of Roque’s mettle. We see the unanticipated wisdom of Ragnar and the valiant truths of Cassius. Even the Jackal is at his best in Morning Star reaching new levels of depravity and darkness. Only Mustang fails to enjoy any kind of really notable development, taking a back seat to the other characters as though she hit her peak in Golden Son. It is important to note that there is even time made for the abundance of side-characters (and even a few new characters) as the novel progresses. Brown leads each of these characters to explore new facets of themselves and explore the nuances of their complex relationships and it results in heart wrenching, hilarious, and deservingly emotional moments for each of them. Likewise, the plot does not attempt to orchestrate some overly simplified single act that brings the culmination of all of the events of the trilogy to a close. Instead, it properly paces out each stage of the story, ensuring that no single event suffers from too much responsibility. While there are no ground battles with the titanic scope of the Iron Rain or space battles with the daredevil tactics of the opening chapters of Golden Son, there are a respectable number of pivotal moments of tension which drive home the stakes for the characters and the gambits they are taking. Sacrifices are made and compromises are accepted. The plot navigates the complexity of the political systems it has established and refuses to insult the world or the reader by thinking things will suddenly be easy (or only superficially difficult) now that it’s the end. Brown’s signature use of language that straddles the line perfectly between gritty realism and mythic poetry and his authentic command of each character’s dialogue to remind you they still possess a relatable humanity beneath their god-like armor and weaponry (almost) never falter.
(To address the ‘almost’: Red Rising, Golden Son, and Morning Star each contain references to contemporary pop culture, most of which fit naturally into the dialogue and language so that they’re noticeable but not obnoxious or immersion breaking. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Morning Star does contain an immersion breaking pop culture reference I will share now: “’My name is Felicia au…’ I feint a whip at her face [and] I finish her off with a neat decapitation. ‘Bye, Felicia.’ Victra spits” (Brown 372). Brown clearly thought it was too good an opportunity to let it pass. And honestly, I kind of agree.)
Narrative satisfaction in a conclusion is but one element of what makes it great, another is philosophical satisfaction. Since Darrow’s wife is killed at the beginning of Red Rising he has been on a quest fuelled by revenge to crush the Society that took her. In Red Rising we see Darrow’s rage, in Golden Son we see his arrogance, and finally in Morning Star we see his contemplation. Darrow begins to ask the necessary questions as the rebellion begins its final maneuvers against the Society, most notable of which being the question ‘are we fighting to bring chaos or beneficial change?’ In Golden Son the bloodiness of war was the end game and it is one that Darrow is not convinced he can or needs to survive. Morning Star does not simply further this notion and ignore the question of what will come next for the solar system. Darrow begins to wonder if he can and should live for more. War is still a brutal tool but it is an instrument of rebellion and a tactic to achieve victory but not victory in and of itself. The people he loves cause him to repeatedly beg the question: what comes after? Because, unlike the boy of the previous books, this Darrow has learned humility and it has caused him to realize that without eyes for the future “death begets death begets death” (422). This whole philosophical line of questioning would seem simple but it is surprising how often trilogies that commence as tales of revenge or rebellion fail to actually do justice to their narratives about justice. Brown refuses to deny Darrow the opportunity to learn and grow into someone worthy of living and he refuses to deny this complex world he has created the opportunity to have hope. In a way, this lends a new degree of tension to the story since Darrow and his friends are not only fighting against the entrenched certainly of the Society but also their own uncertainty as to whether or not they can be better. Finally, the novel wisely spends time on Eo, Darrow’s wife, and the notion that to honour someone’s memory is to remember but to idolize them unto godhood is to forget. In this way, Morning Star takes responsibility for the ethical and philosophical components of its story of revenge, rebellion, justice, and freedom. It does not shirk this responsibility as I have seen other final novels do and hide behind distracting action sequences, overly fan-servicing romance, dramatically internalized conflict, or a shamefully simplified climax.
I am an unapologetic fan of the Red Rising trilogy. I look forward to having the opportunity to re-reading it again years from now and rediscovering all of the elements that made it so thoroughly enjoyable the first time. Especially now that I know it was consistently enjoyable from start to finish. Today I read that Pierce Brown has plans to continue the story of the universe into a new trilogy, starting with Iron Gold in 2017, which will pick up after the events of Morning Star. While I am excited to see the universe continue to develop and to have the chance to read more about my favourite characters, Morning Star really does feel like the end. Darrow’s story is done. His hero’s journey is complete; he has suffered and grown and howled into the wind. It is unfortunate to think so many trilogies come to their end and are overburdened by their own story. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does it is satisfying to know that you really have read something worthwhile and enjoyable. Morning Star is not my favourite book in the Red Rising trilogy but it is everything the trilogy needed in its conclusion. Because when faced with the weight of the task before him it seems that Pierce Brown chose to follow the doubly bold words of Ragnar Volarus: “Never bow” (101).
Brown, Pierce. Morning Star. United States: Del Rey. Feb. 2016. Print.