With the release of Morning Star, the third and climactic volume of the Red Rising trilogy, Pierce Brown has completed what will likely go down in history as one of the most successful sci-fi series of the 21st century, and not just in terms of its chart-topping sales. This thing is a bloodydamn artistic achievement.
Far in humanity’s future, the solar system has been colonized and society reorganized around genetically-determined castes, or Colors. Each Color has a role to play, ranging from the “worker ants” Reds who do the back-breaking manual labor, all the way up to the elite Golds, who rule an empire modeled on ancient Rome, though incorporating many other old-Earth cultures and myths. Forget about comparisons to other dystopian sci-fi: this is a wholly original, surprisingly deep epic. Put simply, if you haven’t read these books, we’re here to tell you why you must, immediately.
Note: Some spoilers follow.
Patient, epic world-building
Red Rising introduces Darrow, a low-color Red miner who believes he is doing the dangerous, grinding work of mining Helium3 from beneath the surface of Mars in order to help terraform the planet. After his wife is arrested and executed, Darrow learns the truth: the surface of Mars has been inhabited for centuries, and the arrogant high colors, led by the ruling Golds, live in comfort while the low colors toil for their benefit, deceived and ignorant.
In the first book, Darrow is recruited by an underground rebellion known as the Sons of Ares, and undergoes a series of painful surgical procedures in order to pass as a Gold. He is sent to attend one of their training Institutes with a simple mission: destroy from within. Fueled by hatred and rage over his wife’s death, Darrow fights harder than any competitor bred for the contest, and we discover that the universe Brown imagines isn’t as simple as its color-coded hierarchy might seem. The further Darrow infiltrates it, the more friends and enemies he makes, and the more detail the story accumulates.
Layered, complex, and unpredictable characters
It’s the characters that really make this story land. At the Institute, where Golds are pitted against each other in a brutal game of survival, Darrow meets many who will become key players in the story and quickly learns the ruthless rules of the games—and how to subvert them on the road to triumph. The oblivious highborn students who rally to his side become his friends and more, and the emotional bonds between them play out for the rest of the trilogy in surprising and often haunting ways. Imagine your best friends from school. Imagine you all became embroiled in a brutal war and must choose sides, but choosing might mean murdering those who’ve decided differently. Yeah, it’s like that.
At the same time, even at the highest levels of power, morality is its own complicated game. Even the most monstrous people have their reasons. Brown knows the fundamental truth of humanity is that we all have the potential to be monsters; sometimes all it takes to set us on a path of revenge is tragedy plus opportunity.
That doesn’t mean these books are grim affairs: there’s plenty of humor throughout, often of the gallows variety, sometimes as adolescent as you might expect of characters who are all of 23 by the end of the trilogy. (Brown slays with a, ingenious “bye, Felicia” reference amid a tense action scene that may go down as one of the best uses of the meme in history.)
A twisting plot
On a sheer plot level, this trilogy offers a master class in surprising readers. Moments many books would save for the climax (think the revelation of Darrow’s true identity to his “fellows”) are deployed when you least expect it, blowing up the dynamics he’s spent hundreds of pages setting up. Each volume offers its own sharp left turns: Golden Son begins a short while after Darrow’s brutal victory at the end of Red Rising. Claimed by one of the most powerful men in the empire, he’s poised to win a real-life war game against a bitter former rival. It seems wholly likely Darrow will continue his upward rise, infiltrating higher and higher levels of power, making ruthless decisions in order to protect his secret and continue accruing power and influence.
Brown has other plans. Darrow is soon outplayed, his position in society greatly harmed. It changes everything you thought you knew about the arc of the series—with nearly two books to go.
Morning Star is a fitting finale. It ramps up the action to insane levels, as the fate Darrow’s growing insurrection twists and turns unexpectedly, capped off with that most daring of literary feats, the Double Twist Climax. If anyone tells you they saw it coming, they’re lying.
A flawed hero
Darrow is complex—he’s charming and emotional and funny, so you like him. But he also grows into a ruthless revolutionary, willing to sacrifice anyone in order to achieve his goals. He suffers incredibly, and doubts himself. These flaws make it all the more exciting when he manages one of a number of improbable last-minute saves, either through his own brilliance or the intervention (intentional or otherwise) of someone else. Darrow isn’t a “Marty Sue,” but a man who crashes and burns and rises from the ashes time and time again, and that’s why we believe he’s one who could inspire billions to rise up behind him.
Those countless billions of lives are what’s at stake, and Darrow’s willingness to bow to necessity and make allies with those he can neither control nor always trust results in an epic conflict that spins off in directions he can’t predict, and the deaths of those you would never expect—characters you’ve come to love, who seem like they should be wearing Plot Armor a mile thick. This can’t be stressed enough: no one is guaranteed to survive. If you love a character, you’d best prepare yourself for the most delicious heartbreak.
Far from indiscriminate carnage, the fact that any character can—will—die underscores the brutality of war, making the stakes terrifyingly real. Brown has created something truly great: a story that pulses with ragged emotion and constant surprise, set in as richly imagined a fictional universe as we’ve encountered in years. Read these, now, before the inevitable movies come out and everyone gets on the bandwagon.