No one does sci-fi literary spectacle quite like Pierce Brown. In the universe of his Red Rising series, populations are measured in the billions, wealth is measured in the quadrillions, and nuclear warheads are tossed off like firecrackers. The personalities involved are likewise outsized—so many characters named after emperors, gods, and legendary heroes! Yet somehow, it never seems to spill over into excess. In the hands of a less confident, less bombastic writer, it all might seem like bigness for bigness’ sake, but Brown is careful to ground this gorydam epic engine with an intimate exploration of the humanity that fuels it. The fifth volume‚ Dark Age, proves it: it’s the biggest book in the series in every way (and certainly as judged by the substantial page count), but it might also be the best.
In some ways, previous installment Iron Gold felt like a lot of set up (if gloriously, entertainingly so), but all of it pays off immediately in Dark Age with an extended battle on Mercury that comprises most of the novel’s first section. Darrow and his considerable forces hold the planet and are heavily fortified, but they’re trapped by Atalantia au Grimmus and her fleet, the Republic having refused to send a rescue. Darrow has never been one to accept defeat, and he comes up with not one, but two audacious, dangerous plans to survive—both of which require him to make promises he ultimately can’t keep and sacrifice people he thought he couldn’t survive without. The rest of the book is concerned with the fallout.
These battle sequences resonate because Brown understands stakes, granting equal time to splashy battles as the intimate inner lives of his characters. Slave-turned-revolutionary Darrow wasn’t made to be a Messiah; he’s always been the desperate Red reeling in anger and sorrow over the death of his birth family, now burning with the need to protect his new clan, which stretches across a solar system. When his clever tactics on Mercury prove to have catastrophic unintended consequences, his rage and agony land with real weight. Decisions aren’t made in a vacuum—both sides of this conflict have to take into account the value of Mercury, its cities, its people.
This sense of the intimate and the epic in parallel forms a thread binding the whole sprawling story together. Red Rising is a brutal series: People die, badly, in ways that put George R.R. Martin to shame. Dark Age contributes a few more of them: shocking, horrifying character deaths that are wrenching to read—but which never feel less that wholly earned. Brown does the work, laying a foundation of grudges, revenge plots, friendships, and betrayals that means that even as the bloody butcher’s bill swells over the course of more than 700 pages, the plot never turns on the shock value of bloody drama. Some of the fun even comes in finding out that death isn’t always what it seems in this dark universe: some folks who seem “dead” are not exactly as dead as you think, or are, perhaps, a different flavor of dead.
Brown excels at painstakingly building a complex, towering plot, then giddily removing supporting pieces until it all crashes down, revealing a new formation. His characters are exceedingly clever, ever plotting and brilliantly scheming. Then, just as you’re standing back to admire their fiendish plans, something unexpected happens, upsetting everything. And that’s the fun of it: the twists. Immense battle fleets, huge armies, incredible technology, unimaginable fortunes—all of these resources are nothing compared to the desires of the characters, whose very human motivations drive the story. Mustang, struggling to preserve the dream of democracy as Sovereign, plots to assert her authority—and gets an unexpected result. Sefi, in possession of prize cargo, plots to secure a place for her Obsidians—and runs into an unexpected rival. And Darrow—well, Darrow’s been dodging the unexpected for four books now, and his life certainly isn’t getting any less complicated.
Dark Age has much to say about the lofty notion of heroism as judged by history. Darrow’s intentions remain noble, but their consequences are conspiring to make him look like a brute, or worse. He’s lost control over his image, and it may be his undoing. Late in the book, he becomes trapped inside a powerless suit of battle armor as a mob attacks him. They climb on top of this man they called the Reaper, the Slave King, the Archimperator, and pound away with tools, scraps of metal, their bare hands, trying to pry him out like meat from a crab’s claw. He’s had his time as hero. Now it’s time to be the villain.