I recently reviewed Hot YA Property Red Rising and concluded on a sort of ambivalent note, stating that I couldn’t in good conscience recommend it despite enjoying it a lot. Well I rushed out and got the sequel- basically the first time that’s happened since I was in my teens- and I’m pleased to find that it’s a more mature and more thoughtful book, even if it does share some of its predecessor’s problems.
It’s two years after the end of Red Rising and Darrow the Space Irishman who’s pretending to be a Space Roman so he can free Space Ireland from tyranny is almost finished his ascension to the heights of Gold society. The book opens just as he’s about to win a war-game as part of the final test of the Academy that trains budding young space commanders, successful completion of which will earn him his own fleet with which to fuck shit up. But a member of the noble family he made enemies of in the first book springs a last-minute trap, and Darrow ends up in second place. As a result his wealthy patron dumps him, which leaves him with no resources for the Red rebellion he’s supposed to be fomenting and makes him vulnerable to the many people who want to kill him.
All hope seems lost, and in despair he very nearly carries out a desperate suicide bombing to eliminate the top-tier of Gold leadership. But at the last minute he comes up with a better idea: exploit the worsening rivalries between the Gold noble houses to start a civil war and tear the Society apart, allowing the Red rebels to rise up while everyone is busy fighting each other.
I mentioned that Red Rising has a bit of an identity crisis in that it feels like three different books mashed together; here all of the disparate threads and ideas are pulled into a cohesive whole, which is basically Game of Thrones but space opera instead of gritty fantasy. I have an allergic reaction to this genre, but Golden Son side-steps most of the common space opera pitfalls thanks to the fantasy veneer it carries over from the first book. We have feudal-style houses that are only explained as much as they need to be instead of sprawling interstellar governments and spaceship classes are treated as no more important than the different breeds of horses knights might ride on. As far as I can remember no one refers to orbital bombardment as “glassing” something. These are all very positive improvements, although unfortunately the annoying futureSpeak jargon remains.
The Game of Thrones comparison extends to the complexity of the narrative as well, as the scale of the story balloons dramatically from the struggle of one person on Mars to a war that will reshape the political landscape of the solar system. The increasing scale is handled a lot better here, in that the plot actually moves forward at a decent pace, but the expansion of the cast could probably have been done better. As it is there are a few characters who either pop in and out of the story sporadically in odd ways or are introduced and then proceed to not really do a whole lot. I was particularly disappointed by how the cool, snarky pilot Darrow recruits ends up largely sidelined after her introduction. Hopefully she’ll get more page time in the last book.
Golden Son seems to have been written with an awareness of the first book’s lack of diversity in mind, and as such the cast is noticeably less homogeneous when it comes to race, gender and sexuality. The death of Darrow’s friends and allies is still a prime motivator for him, but it no longer feels like women are being fridged to an inordinate degree. I don’t want to give the impression that Golden Son is some sort of progressive beacon- far from it- but I appreciated the effort.
The only odd note is the depiction of the Reds. Shortly into the first book I realized from their accent and the heavily mythologized accounts of their homeland that they’re based on Irish people; in this book we learn that they literally came from Ireland, after the country was rendered uninhabitable following some sort of nuclear incident in England (which was a common concern during the last decade due to safety fears around coastal power plants). Now, the Reds all having red hair is understandable since the different Color castes were genetically engineered to be identifiable on sight- the Golds are all blonde for example, and everyone has iris colors corresponding to their rank- but unless I missed something they all appear to be white as well. Ireland isn’t a hugely diverse country in the grand scheme of things, but it hasn’t been homogeneously white for a long time. The colonization of space seems to have occurred quite some time into our future, so you’d expect it to be even less so by then.
Another flaw that carries forward from the first book: Darrow himself continues to be a black hole of empathy in the middle of a lot of very sympathetic characters. I’m invested in his mission and whether or not his friends will survive, but I don’t actually care about the guy himself and it continually bogs the plot down. A lot of the problem stems from Darrow’s overblown narration (“I am the reaper and the leader and the breaker of chains and the thing and the BLAH AND FLARGH”) but I also feel that the story has never quite managed to get away from the Superdarrow stuff from the beginning of Red Rising. He works for his victories, makes mistakes and frequently falls victim to bad fortune, but the ease with which he converts the general populace to his side feels hollow and fake. There’s a mild Kvothe effect going on, where the world at times comes across as a mere backdrop for Darrow’s rise to glory to play out against.
Despite these problems it’s a real rollercoaster of a story, hurtling along with non-stop twists and tense action scenes. I just wonder how the last book is going to top it, and whether the conclusion of this story can do justice to its set-up. Most of what’s happened in the trilogy so far has been a matter of building Darrow up and getting the chess pieces in the right place for the Red uprising to begin, and I find myself wondering whether there’s time for that story to play out and conclude itself in the space of one book, particularly considering where this one leaves off.