Review: MORNING STAR (Red Rising #3), by Pierce Brown
And so this powerful trilogy has reached its conclusion, and it is an epic one – no other word can describe it with anything approaching justice. Both story-arc and characterization move with a steady forward motion resembling that of an avalanche, progressing toward the end with a relentless, breath-taking pace that at times is almost impossible to bear: I often had to remind myself to breathe, just breathe, such was the intensity of what I was reading. The progression I mentioned is not limited to story and characters, however: in the course of these three books I witnessed the author’s steadily growing mastery of both subject and fictional creatures and as they grew in depth and precision, so grew my appreciation for this writer – I went from intrigued to totally invested reader, to ultimately become a staunch fan, one who hopes to read more from Pierce Brown in the very near future.
While I will try, as I always do, to keep any spoilers under control, it will be next to impossible to avoid them if I want to discuss both Morning Star and its predecessors, so this is your warning: read on at your own peril…
Golden Son, the middle book, ended in a harrowing cliffhanger, with Darrow exposed and captured. Morning Star begins with Darrow lying in a tomb-like cell, prisoner of darkness, of the memory of the tortures he’s been subjected to and the awareness that so many sacrifices could have been in vain. It’s a dark, miserable beginning and yet we see that a broken body does not necessarily mean a broken spirit, and that the Reaper of Mars still harbors an ember of rebellion that needs only a little breath to blaze into the old fire.
I am the Reaper.
I know hot to suffer.
I know the darkness.
This is not how it ends.
And indeed Darrow rises again, phoenix-like, from the ashes, this cycle of rebirth a constant in his journey: first from Red to Gold after his recruitment by the Sons of Ares and Mikey’s carving; then as the winner of the Institute’s bloody battles, when he realizes how much the experience has changed him; then again when he falls from favor and must re-assess his priorities and alliances. What’s most fascinating in this cycle is that each time Darrow gains more than what he’s forced to leave behind, just as his character and goals gain depth and scope: from the mere need for vengeance for the death of his wife Eo, he moves on toward a desire to first overthrow Gold society and then to change it, to finally land upon the understanding that this change must come for everyone, not just the lower Colors, to be truly meaningful. That his ultimate goal must not be the destruction of an unjust system, but the building of something that will affect everyone’s present and future.
We’re not fighting for the dead. We’re fighting for the living. And for those who aren’t yet born. For a chance to have children.
This awareness goes hand in hand with the realization that such an undertaking must be a collective effort, so that Darrow struggles to include as many allies as he can in his scheme – not just because of the “safety in numbers” factor, but because he has learned that no one can function in a vacuum and that a shared dream has more chances to become a reality than the hopes of a single man. This proves more difficult than outright battle: dealing with people and their multi-faceted personalities requires a finesse that a simple fight lacks, and not just with strangers that must be won over to the Rising’s cause – sometimes friends represent the trickiest subjects and a common ground can be successfully established only through trial and error. Darrow’s best moments are those when he makes mistakes, when he does something catastrophically wrong: he’s not your proverbial square-jawed, perfect hero, he’s flawed – human – and therefore very relatable, much more so in the last two books, where his shortcomings come dramatically to the surface, than in the first one where it’s somewhat hard to feel empathy toward him.
He’s not alone in this, thankfully: both friends and foes share this characteristic so that their personalities are allowed to shine on their own, and not just in the reflected light of the ‘hero’. One of the features I most appreciated in this trilogy, and particularly in the last two installments, is that despite the first-person point of view the focus is not always on Darrow: too often this kind of narrative choice tends to selfishly concentrate on the main character, to the detriment of the others, but not here. Sevro, Victra, Mustang, Ragnar (oh, Ragnar…) and many others are much more than shadows flanking the protagonist, enhancing the choral quality of the novels and gifting them with richness and depth. Even the antagonists show a few chinks in their armor, small details that make their wickedness more credible: the best example of this is the Jackal, the cruel and amoral Gold mastermind, who is ultimately driven by a deep need to be seen, acknowledged and loved – I was surprised at the stab of pity (fleeting as it was) that I felt for him, and added it to the long list of reasons that make me appreciate Pierce Brown’s writing.
All of the above does not apply to people alone: the descriptions of landscapes and situations come alive with cinematic clarity, so that it’s easy to visualize the backgrounds in which the action takes place, but where the author’s skills truly shine is in the battle scenes, either in space or in hand-to-hand combat. One of the reasons I’m not very fond of military SF is that the space battles tend to focus too much on technology and science, so that I quickly lose both patience and interest and skip ahead: this never happened here, because Brown never forgets to give his readers the human angle of conflict – the suffering, the loss of life, the unavoidable destruction. There is so much raw emotion infused in these descriptions, that you can’t forget how all those powerful war machines are manned by people, by flesh and blood on which the ultimate price of war is imposed. The same applies to individual clashes, where strife becomes close and personal, where blood and gore and smashed limbs are paraded before our eyes, never in a form of morbid voyeurism that wants to shock, but in search of empathy and participation, placing the readers in the middle of the scene and making them wince in sympathy rather than recoil in revulsion.
I like to say that a good book is the one you keep thinking about even after you’ve closed it: the Red Rising trilogy, and this final installment in particular, more than fulfilled that role for me – even several days after finishing it, I can’t take the characters and the story out of my mind. Not that I’m complaining about it…