I have this theory I call “middle book syndrome,” which basically states that the middle novel of a trilogy is inherently in danger of becoming nothing more than a set-up for the third book – that it will lack a proper plot of its own and become a dragging plod from start to finish. It’s the mark of a good author to avoid this, but I’m always leery when I pick up the second book of a series.
In this case, though – damn, sir. You knocked it out of the park, and my hat’s off to you.
Golden Son starts some time after the events of Red Rising. Our hero Darrow is leading war strategy, but he loses his final match to the brother of Cassius – something his patron, the ArchGovernor of Mars, cannot abide. To save his hide from the Bellonas, Darrow makes an uneasy alliance with his former enemy the Jackal and declares war upon the Sovereign in the name of the ArchGovernor. The story follows that war, from Darrow & Co’s harrowing escape from Luna through war councils and raids and culminating in an Iron Rain on Mars itself. Darrow rises so high, only to have his knees swept out from him at the end.
First off, let me address what I saw as the main problem of Red Rising – the female characters. Thankfully, Brown does a much better job handling those characters here than he did in Red Rising. Mustang mercifully does not get damseled again – in fact, she actually has some agency of her own in trying to protect her family. Victra gets introduced in this book, and she is a whirlwind – in love with Darrow, but not pining over him, she is loyal, smart and vicious when she needs to be. There is still a blatant female death, but it serves more purpose than just to spur Darrow on – it is one of the first events to drive a wedge between Darrow and one of his friends, a theme that builds throughout the novel. Overall, I’m much happier on this front and can happily give this book the rating I’m going to.
While we’re on character, let’s chat about the other characters. Darrow grows a bit more here. Just like Red Rising, the steady thrum of Darrow’s motivation pulses throughout the novel. In fact, it’s even heavier here due to a heartbreaking revelation Darrow receives early on. This is an older Darrow, who has learned much from his experiences, but who hasn’t yet figured out how to open up to his friends. He makes a lot of progress on this over the course of the novel, and yet his mistakes in this area are his undoing.
Two of my favorites from Red Rising are still here as well in strong supporting roles – Sevro and Roque. Sevro in particular is a wonder in this book, getting far more stage time and far more depth than he did previously. His Howlers continue to be the difference between life and death for Darrow, and we get another revelation concerning Sevro toward the end of the novel, one that explains a lot about him. Roque, meanwhile, earns his stripes as a space commander, seemingly at odds with his poetic attitude toward life.
There are also several new characters – we see the ArchGovernor in detail, learning more about his motives and humanizing him without un-villainizing him. Victra, I’ve already mentioned. Darrow acquires an Obsidian retainer, whose journey from slavish adoration of Darrow to willing partner and friend makes a nice subplot, and we also meet the much-mentioned Lorn au Arcos, former Rage Knight, who serves as a wise mentor figure for Darrow. All of these are welcome additions to the novel, adding more depth and color (hah – get it?) to the story.
Now that the serious stuff is past us, let’s talk about the fun stuff – holy action sequences, Batman! This novel contains some of the most exciting action set-pieces I’ve read, particularly Darrow and Sevro’s desperate, last-ditch and SUCCESSFUL attempt to jettison themselves aboard a spaceship and take control. The Iron Rain on Mars would be a close second. Brown describes all of this very well; it’s easy to picture it, even feel it, as you’re reading. Movie adaptations can go horribly, horribly wrong, but I’d love to see those scenes on the big screen someday.
So you won’t be surprised when I tell you that this book moves, even more than Red Rising did. Brown has a knack for removing the boring bits, pushing logistics off-screen to the Jackal and jumping ahead a few weeks here and there to avoid the plot stagnating. It feels effortless, and you barely notice it, but it keeps the plot hammering forward.
Saying all that to say this – Golden Son was better thanRed Rising, and I highly recommend it and I look forward to the series’ conclusion. Morning Star arrived in the mail this morning, so I can’t wait to see where that cliffhanger ending goes!