Much as I enjoyed the amazing revelation that was Red Rising, the first volume in this series, I thought it suffered from a somewhat uneven pace, especially in the middle part, so I started this second installment with a mixture of curiosity and wariness. Well, I should not have worried at all, because Golden Son’s pace is nothing but relentless, without a single moment of respite, both for the main character and the readers. To say that this second book is far superior to its predecessor would be a massive understatement indeed.
We find Darrow, the Red mole in Gold society, now firmly ensconced in his role as the protegé of powerful Nero au Augustus: having completed the brutal training at the Institute, where the weak and unworthy (at least according to cruel Gold rules) are weeded out, he graduated to the Academy to learn space warfare. Here occurs the first of a sequence of blows that shake the foundations Darrow is building for the completion of his plan: on the verge of the victory that should crown him as the Gold rising star he promised to be, he suffers a terrible defeat, one that exposes both his overconfidence and one of the more ruthless tenets of the ruling race – that there is no place for failure, and that even a powerful lion, if wounded, is not immune from attacking wolves.
Just as he underwent a physical reconstruction and rebuilding in the first book, one that transformed him from a lowly Red to a Gold, here he faces that same process as far as his mind and soul are concerned: Darrow is primarily a warrior – a fighter – but he’s not tailored for the subtler warfare of politics, psychology and shifting alliances, and this is what he must learn here to avoid being crushed by the ferocious machine he’s been instructed to destroy. Once again, and even more dramatically than before, he must face a terrible truth: that he must be ready to make extreme sacrifices to reach his goal, even when those sacrifices include the life of the lower Colors he should be a champion of, or the lives of his friends. This is the most difficult struggle Darrow faces, because if on one hand some of the people he met at the Institute have become allies and friends, on the other he’s unable – or unwilling – to forget that they are also his enemies, that if they knew the truth of his origin they would not hesitate to turn against him. Or would they?
Darrow does have huge trust issues indeed, because he’s an infiltrator who must keep his guard high at all times, but also because personal history does not make it easy for him to trust anyone, since to do so would mean to put his life in someone else’s hands. And yet events force him to do exactly that, to depend on others and therefore accept the risks and benefits that this choice implies. This character has never been a people person, not even when he was a simple Red miner in the bowels of the planet: he relied too much on himself, on his pride, on his ability to carry on single-handedly any kind of task. Defeat makes him more human, as does the need to reach out to others, because his inexperience in this field causes him to make mistakes – either relying too much on an untrustworthy person, or blinding himself to real friendship, with all the consequences that this implies.
Despite the constant uncertainty that Darrow has to deal with, or maybe exactly because of it, he really flourishes as a character and as a person: the apparent lack of choices that his Academy failure entails seems to free him from any constraints and shows us his full potential, the reserves of cunning he was keeping hidden – even from us readers. Not only that, it also widens the scope of his mission: away from the enclosed environments of Institute or Academy, Darrow is finally able to perceive how profoundly unjust Gold culture is, because its brutality does not extend only to the Reds, but to all strata of society – exalted Golds included. He finally understands that change must come from within, not as a rebellion-driven revolution, but as a re-shaping of mindsets and attitudes – a much more difficult task because certain mechanisms and thought processes are far too ingrained to be easily subverted, as dramatically shown in a couple of instances.
Just as Darrow’s personality expands and improves in Golden Son, so do others, be they old ones or new to the scene: they all share that same feeling of increased depth and substance, especially the women, who were something of a sore point for me in Red Rising. Here they finally become fully fleshed, complex persons, with well-defined powers and goals – be they either figures for good, like Mustang, or evil, like Octavia au Lune. Or something in between, like mercurial Victra, one of my favorite secondary characters. The writing and pacing show the same increase in maturity, being tighter and more focused than they were in the previous book: the action sequences keep rolling inexorably to the end – and what an explosive, breath-stealing end it is! – with no perceivable reprieve, making this installment in the series a totally compulsive reading experience. The sense of impending doom, of inexorable defeat, hangs over even the most successful endeavors, accentuating the state of extreme turmoil of a society on the verge of upheaval, mirrored by the constant tides of alliances made and broken, of betrayals and sacrifices, of love and hate that permeate the fabric of this novel.
On hindsight, it was fortunate that I choose to read this second book so late after its publication, because waiting for the final installment, after that harrowing cliffhanger at the end, would have been sheer torture. Luckily, I can pick up Morning Star any time I want, and see how the story arc will end: if I adventured in this book armed with curiosity and wariness, I will tackle the final one with high anticipation – the progress I encountered here leads me to expect great things.