(2016) Pierce Brown, Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99, hrdbk, xii + 524pp, ISBN 978-1-444-75905-1
Morning Star is the third book in new novelist Pierce Brown’s 'Red Rising' trilogy. And, as I sm fond of saying, there is no point in wading in with part three of a trilogy because it will just be confusing. But that’s not necessarily true of Morning Star, but missing out the first two books will rob the third of much of its impetus, and lead to plenty of head scratching whilst people do incomprehensible things to random people. So start with book one (Red Rising).
And if you follow that advice, beware, because the following review will contain major spoilers for the first two parts so you might like to put your hands over your eyes until the last three paragraphs. (Or jump to after the spoilers end.)
Red Rising follows the story of Darrow, born into a society seven hundred years into the future where people are stratified into rigid hierarchies based on colours. It’s not unlike the Indian caste system and Darrow, unfortunately for him, is born a Red, the lowest of the low. Greys with whips keep him and his fellow miners in line, toiling away in slavery in the bowels of Mars helping complete a mammoth terraforming project on the surface. He is seventeen, married to the beautiful, feisty and intelligent Eo, and he’s happy. Then, one day, Eo takes him to a secret tunnel to the surface, where Darrow finds the terraforming project is complete and realises he and his people have been lied to in order to keep them under control.
Back in the mines, Darrow and Eo are captured and must face punishment for going where Reds are forbidden to go. Eo is blamed, and sentenced to a flogging. Unfortunately, the Gold ruler of Mars is visiting, and when Eo sings a seditious song of freedom, orders her dead. She is left to hang as an example to others, but the grief stricken Darrow cuts her body down and buries her on the surface. For this he, too, is condemned to death, but this time the Sons of Aries, a resistance group, manages to fake his death.
The colours that men are divided into are separated by genetic modification. The ruling class, the Golds, are stronger and taller than other colours, with golden hair and skin. The Sons of Ares modify Darrow so that he looks like a Gold, in order to infiltrate Gold society and help the resistance. The aim is, ultimately, to ‘break the chains’ of slavery that bind each colour to the whims of the Golds.
When Darrow emerges he discovers that not only is the terraforming complete but it has been for hundreds of years and great cities cover the surface of Mars, which makes him even more angry that his people have been kept underground and fed lies. With a false identity, he passes tests to enrol in the elite Institute, where future Gold leaders are trained.
The Institute is a cross between Hogwarts and the Hunger Games, where twelve ‘houses’ battle it out over a year defending their ‘castles’ to see who is worthy. The Institute is brutal: in order to cull 50% of each house’s numbers at the start, two students are placed in a room and told to kill each other. Only the survivor goes on to the later tests.
Most of the first book covers Darrow’s time at the Institute, where he makes a number of Gold friends (and enemies). He gradually begins to see them as people not oppressors and becomes filled with doubts about his mission. Like the Hunger Games, the Institute is rigged, and like The Hunger Games, he wins by taking his fight to the organisers, in this case the ‘Proctors’ in ‘Olympus’.
Book two, Golden Son, has Darrow ingratiating himself into Gold society, but things come unstuck when he’s outmanoeuvred by scheming politicians who undermine his reputation and a breakaway faction of the Sons of Ares who want him to blow up most of the ruling Golds, including the Sovereign. So he stimulates a Civil War between Mars’s two biggest ruling houses, then goes off to battle with and against his friends. But, at the end, with victory in sight he is betrayed and his true identity is revealed…
Morning Star opens with Darrow exposed as a Red and trapped by his arch enemy The Jackal, but he’s rescued and then has to find a way to convince all colours (including Gold) to follow him. The story then contains a Space Opera mix of battles and twisting alliances, culminating in a bloody showdown as Darrow seeks to follow his wife’s dreams to ‘break the chains’ which bind the colours. The heart of this book, though, is Darrow’s slow realisation of who he is, who his friends are, and how he can reconcile the different pulls in his life, not least his growing love for a Gold woman, Mustang, and what that implies for his roots as a Red and his loyalty to his dead wife Eo.
This trilogy does not break any new ground and, amongst other influences, has a solid Hunger Games feel, particularly in the first part. The first book is the strongest, but Morning Star doesn’t have the same drive and solid plotting. When the story was all about revenging Eo and saving the Reds from slavery, there was an energy which propelled the narrative, but by book three we are bogged down by endless space battles and introspective monologues, and the plot holes, continuity glitches and sheer implausibilities become ever more apparent.
That said, this is an engaging book with interesting characters and strong premise. Recommended if you like YA-ish space opera from newish writers who still have some rough edges. But read Rising Star first!
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