No doubt if you're a book nerd you've inevitably heard of this series, and inevitably you've been interested and then looked into it and saw the dread genre title of Sci-Fi. But, allow me to explain why you are doing yourself a disservice by not reading them.
First and foremost, Sci-Fi is really a bit of a misnomer. Now, don't get me wrong; this is set in the far future and it is sort of dystopian meets pure Sci-Fi. But the first two books are a blend of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, the latest two books are Thriller meets Sci-Fi with intertwining stories and characters all coming together. Sci-Fi is definitely the backbone of this series, but it is not Sci-Fi just for the sake of having cool futuristic shit. It uses it to it's advantages and tells a compelling narrative while using that futuristic backbone as a way to draw you into the universe.
The series follows the main character Darrow, a slave living underground in Mars in the far future. He is part of the lower class called Reds. All of the other classes are separated by color with the Golds presiding over all. Through years of genetic modification the Reds are small and weak in physical stature and mental capabilities while the Golds are near to living Gods, with powerful physiques and hyper intelligence. Darrow is eventually picked out to undergo a physical surgery and is essentially transformed into a Gold, so he can infiltrate the Academy and burn down the Gold's from the inside and set the other Colors free for the first time in centuries.
This story is fairly simply at face value, but damn is it not in execution. The story is obviously meant to invoke a strong familial sense of equality. You want Darrow to win because the Reds and low Colors have been consistently dragged down and browbeaten into submission and used for demeaning labor just so that the Golds can live lavishly and continue to rule over all. The Golds are initially painted as pure evil, they all have this narcissistic complex that seems to be nearly self-destructive. However, you're soon introduced to four big characters that completely spin this narrative on it's head and ask the first big question of the series; are the Golds inherently evil or is it simply perspective. We shall deconstruct this book-by-book. Starting with the very first book, Red Rising.
Red Rising, The Destruction of the Conventional Narrative
After Darrow is transformed we follow him undergoing intense training to better himself physically as well as mentally to get into the Gold Academy. We see him going over manuscripts and histories, depicting the Golds as all powerful people reinforcing that mentality of the Golds being terrible people.
Darrow does eventually find his way into the Academy and finds himself undergoing the trails to get into the final select few that fight to prove themselves worthy of being Golds. Here we already find ourselves being shocked out of a sense of safety, as Darrow finds himself being forced to kill an innocent young Gold to get into the Academy. And here we first find that Pierce Brown establishes two main things; First, that you need to remember major story beats like this. And Two, that so far we've only seen a Red do bad shit.
We find ourselves also being introduced to the four characters I mentioned before. Now, these characters are introduced earlier in the book but I think they are a little too cookie cutter until the students are thrust into the world that challenges them; Cassius, essentially the perfect Gold who believes in a strong sense of family and honor. Roque, the dorky history guy who wins everyone over with charm and unconscious humor. Sevro, the bad mouthed anti-Gold who is often looked down upon by the other Golds. And Virginia, the strong willed and difficult leader. These characters eventually convince Darrow that maybe not all the Golds are bad. That he doesn't need to burn the old world, it just needs to adapt. At least, that's the story to follow here in the first book.
However, Red Rising asks the difficult question; what if the people you're fighting for commit the worst atrocities? Throughout the book we're told about the Sons of Ares, guerilla fighters comprised of Reds trying to fight back against the Gold overlords. But we also hear how the Sons are killing innocents by the hundreds due to their methods. We also have the first big twist. It's revealed that there was another Red project like Darrow, someone who was modified and given fake backstory to infiltrate the Academy and burn down the Golds. But this second Red also rapes prisoner Golds and tries to murder them despite the rules being set that you are not allowed to do either of those things. The perception is completely shifted, Reds are doing the worst shit while Darrow tries to avenge the Reds that he lost. It's a wonderful way to shut down the ideal of a perfect Dystopian narrative that encourages you to root for Darrow since the beginning, only to rip your sense of safety out and tells you to reconsider all of this.
Golden Son, The Difficulty of Legends
Golden Son takes a slightly different approach, Darrow is established as willing to give his life for the goal of burning down the old world. As he witnesses the world around him grow steadily more corrupt the higher up he gets, he constantly goes back and forth between wanting to save his new Gold friends and having to view those same friends as obstacles/enemies.
Darrow is also shown to be slowly turning into a deadly force of nature that is willing to put everything on the line to accomplish his goals, including risking his own friends lives.
But Darrow, Cassius, Roque, Virginia and Sevro have a new task that they all have to learn to adapt to: How do they feel about being treated as living legends, and do they really deserve that status?
Cassius is slowly trying to set up Darrow so he can avenge his brother that Darrow killed in the Academy. Roque is trying to cope with the steady loss of his friends and his growing distrust of Darrow. Sevro is trying to live up to his father's image and Virginia is trying to understand Darrow's goals while also trying to find her own way to be successful under her father's shadow.
Here we see Pierce Brown do something completely different from the previous books, the Golds are not painted as bad, they're just painted as people. Living, breathing people just going through life and doing their best to rise up to the occasion of their respective lineages. The only time we see the Golds being construed as evil is when Darrow has internal dialogues against himself, he always wants to be right but he just can't convince himself.
This book asks the question; what if the villains aren't black and white? Or what if the sense of moral grey is applicable to everyone? Everyone has goals and everyone wants to be the best they were supposed to be. But, once again, Brown rips the carpet out from under you. Remember how I said that you need to remember story beats? Well, this books third act completely demands this. AS Darrow's world begins to crumble and fall as someone discovers his secret and he admits it to two others. The universe feels smaller and more personal as Darrow now finds himself constantly questioning who his enemies are and what he will have to do to survive and accomplish his mission.
Morning Star, Convention Meets Conviction
The last book in the main trilogy, this book is more of a trip through Darrow's personal hell as he constantly finds himself pitted against stacked odds as he desperately fights to accomplish his goals. He constantly is pushed to the edge both emotionally and morally. And that is the strongest part of this book, how far is too far to accomplish a goal?
Darrow makes a lot of questionable choices in this book, and since it's a first person POV narrative we are made to see the darkest parts of Darrow. Someone who was pushed so far, betrayed so often that now he decides that people's livers are worth it for the end goal. He kills thousands upon thousands of people to accomplish the goal of burning down the Old World. And burn, it truly does.
Darrow tries some things that are nearly as bad as the people who pushed and tortured him. How far does the conviction go before it stops being justifiable.
His friends ask that question several times as well, Virginia questions his morality, Sevro questions his sanity, Victra questions his... Sexuality? I dunno, that jokes only makes sense if you've read the book. But Darrow has also lost two of his closest friends, Roque has constantly been on his heels, running his own armada of ships trying to stop Darrow from continuing his war against the Golds. And Cassius is simply trying to regain his honor.
Morning Star finds itself asking the questions of the previous two books, but this time it forces you to experience them first hand. And the violence ratchets itself up to eleven.
The Red Rising series (and yes it is ongoing but Iron Gold is just... Way too dense to get into here) paints a picture of brutality amidst noble goals. Equality is something we all want to strive for, we don't want to see people who work hard go unrewarded. We want everyone to experience the same level of opportunity as each other. But equality is rarely cut and dry. Sometimes the answer to equality is caked in blood and betrayal, and sometimes it has to come at the expense of our moral superiority.
It's not an easy discussion point to make. And it sure as hell isn't a comfortable one to examine. It raises a lot of questions about the importance of hierarchy, the nobility of lineage and the examination of morality set amidst duty. And yet, Pierce Brown manages to start this conversation in a way that is not just compelling, but actually worth examining. Sure, there's a lot of violence and damn does the Iron Gold book ratchet the profanity up to eleven (which I loved by the way) and there's a lot of Sci-Fi mumbo jumbo but when a story manages to be as consistently well written and self aware of it's own story beats as these books are, it's something special to experience.
There are not a lot of authors who actually consciously ask the reader to remember stuff. Most authors these days will either remind you or they will spout some exposition in a fanciful way to bring the images back to your head. Brown doesn't do that. he assumes and treats you like an adult. He knows that you'll remember the name Pax, he knows that you'll remember the atrocities of Darrow, he knows that you'll remember the Red's verbiage. It's not only a wonderful breath of fresh air to be treated like an adult, but it's so much rarer when that actually plays into a story asking some truly hard questions.
At the end of the day, Red Rising is a fantastic study of character and writing. The constant twists and turns are enough to make you sweat when you apprehensively turn the page, and the writing is so sharp and well constructed that you'll find yourself sitting up well into the night. And some night, when you've finished Morning Star, and you're laying in bed thinking on what it means to be a hero, and what you would do, some time in that moment; you'll find that Brown gave you the answer all along, the question is; do you see it?