Pierce Brown is a smart writer. His Red Rising trilogy (Red Rising, Golden Son, and Morning Star) is triumph of both style and substance, set in a future civilization modeled on the Roman Empire in which the roles citizens are allowed to play in society are dictated by the genetically coded color of their hair and eyes, from ruling Golds, to Yellow healers, to laboring Reds labor. With that arresting visual to start from, Brown could have filled out the trilogy with spaceship battles, sprawling set-pieces, and colorful (pun intended) characters, and no one would have minded one bit.
And in a sense, that’s exactly what he did—these are books pack with an interplanetary revolution’s worth of incident. But beyond the action, the Red Rising trilogy also offers a deep sense of sense of future history, intelligent plotting, and excellent character development. The end result is a series that starts with familiar sci-fi and fantasy tropes—the artificially stratified dystopia, the lowborn serf with a grand destiny—and subverts them in smart and surprising ways. It was thrilling, riding alongside Darrow, former Red from Mars, as he led an insurgency that toppled an empire.
When Brown announced Iron Gold, the first book in a new trilogy set in the Red Rising universe, cautious optimism seemed in order. After all, the author had created something nearly perfect in those first three books. Would returning to the same setting and characters feel like a retread, or diminish what came before? The answer, thankfully, is a firm no. Iron Gold once again proves Brown’s smarts. It’s a book that recognizes that history isn’t a series of neat stories that begin and end, but a constant, chaotic flow, a fact that informs the entire novel.
The Cycle of Empire and Revolt
Iron Gold is set 10 years after the events of Morning Star, in a solar system as unsettled and violent as ever. Darrow—The Reaper, Archimperator of the new Republic he helped to found—is returning from a bloody victory to bring Mercury into the fold of the Republic, chasing the Ash Lord and his battered fleet to his final refuge on Venus. But the victory is bitter in Darrow’s mouth—he’s tired of fighting, tired of leaving his family behind for months or years at a time. And winning this latest battle comes at a tremendous cost, even beyond the millions of lives lost. An empire the size and vintage of this one doesn’t simply forget thousands of years of cruel oppression overnight. Brown submerges his characters in the weariness of endless war, and never lets us forget the unsteady nature this newly-founded society, reminding us that revolutions never end cleanly, with dancing, celebration, and a calm transfer of power.
Darrow is again a key player, but Iron Gold also show us the universe through new eyes, echoing the way the very movement he started has grown beyond Darrow’s control. He’s now one of four point-of-view characters: Lysander au Lune is the Gold grandson of the deposed sovereign, trying to stay alive and protect his legacy and the memory of his family’s traditions. Lyria is a Martian Red who was a small child when Darrow freed her and her family from slavery in the mines—but things have not gone well for her people since their vaunted liberation; they’ve been abandoned and forgotten in a refugee camp, their purpose and security long gone. Lyria’s bitterness toward the empty promises of the new Republic underscores how difficult true reform really is. Ephraim, Trigg’s grieving betrothed, who learned a great deal about in the first three books, is also on hand to give voice to the low colors who still burn for revenge against the Golds, whatever side they fought for during the war.
The Grey Areas
Brown’s smartest move is to explore the failures of Darrow’s revolution—not to revel in the battles won, the titles gained, the legends and myths established, but to dig down into the more complicated question of whether his actions have made the universe a better place. As a new threat creeps along the Rim, Brown explores the sense of rage brewing among the low colors, the cynical power games played in the senate, and even the limitations of Darrow and his allies to right the remaining wrongs. They were brilliant when the way forward was clear—fight the Golds, kill anything that stood in their way. Now that they must govern and, more importantly, keep to their high-minded ideals, they stumble. They make mistakes. And those mistakes have huge repercussions.
Iron Gold offers more of everything we loved about the first three books. Pierce Brown builds upon the foundations of the incredible universe and story he spun in the first trilogy, pivoting on his characters’ flaws and fallibility to steer the narrative in unexpected directions. Suffice it to say, readers will be soon be dying to read the next one.