The Books of 2020, #5: Dark Age (Red Rising Series, Book Five), by Pierce Brown

First up, a warning: gonna be spoilers abounding in this one, both for this specific book and the series to date. Don’t really have a way to discuss Book 5 out of a currently-planned 6 without spoiling some shit.

So… I loved the first few books in this, Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series. I enjoyed the first book of the second trilogy as well, as it greatly expanded the viewpoint of the series. But after reading this absolutely fucking bloated fifth entry… man.

Clocking in at seven hundred and eighty-fucking-four pages, there were no less than three explicit moments while reading this book (I leave all progress indicators off on my Kindles; I like surprises, but the side-effect is that I have no fuckin’ idea how much of the book I’m reading is left) where I thought to myself, “well, this has GOTTA be the final Big Showdown Scene, right? It’s Prologue and out now!” and NOPE.

SO MUCH goddamned ground is covered in this entry, and, at some point, the reader just becomes numb to all of the PLOT TWISTS!!!! and TURNS OUTS!!!!

There’s little I like less, that I find cheaper, than bringing back a character after they were clearly indicated as Capital-D Dead earlier. They did this shit with Sevro in the previous book, and now they’re doing it with Cassius. I don’t like it, and this series is verging on becoming a Marvel movie in the way death has to be assumed to be meaningless.

Which is a shame, because otherwise this series treats death rather… properly? A solar system-rending civil war would probably be extremely bloody, and the death toll is appropriately in the millions here. Grim? Ghoulish? Yes, but I like my apocalyptic sci-fi to be truly, well, apocalyptic. And it is that, here.

Brown has done some outstanding world building throughout this series, it’s part of what drew me in originally. But he’s hitting that George RR Martin wall of having a gigantic, well-drawn universe and just too much shit to resolve cleanly in any reasonable number of books. Unlike, for example, The Expanse, which has used time jumps and just a clean, efficient writing style to move the various plots along, Brown has let the cast of characters get way too big, to the point that I have to reference the character list at the front way too often to remember who many of the B and C cast even are. And that means I don’t much care about most of them.

I don’t want to be extremely negative here, but in a world setting that was already stretching even the bounds of its self-defined reality, Dark Age often snaps those bounds. Take the Obsidians, for example (giant, genetically-modified warrior cast who have multiple space-faring empires now that they’re mostly liberated from The Society even though they have spent the last half-thousand years being held down to a completely primitive faux-Viking level of belief, learning and technology. Yeah, I know. It’s a lot). They were barely acceptable, even by the rules of this world, when they were entirely used as rigorously-controlled military forces with little of their own leadership allowed to survive outside of their force-regressed, completely isolated polar reservations throughout the Solar System. It’s very hard to buy the pretense that they could rebel, conquer, and hold their own polities in both deep dark space and on one of the most populous and powerful planets in the system at the same time. Sorry, just not buying that whole plotline, and I’m also not seeing it as particularly relevant or interesting. The liberation of the Obsidians isn’t even really needed as a plot element since you already have the fuckin’ downtrodden Reds to serve as the proletariat element the plot demands. And my gods are a LOT of pages spent on this.

Another element that failed for me… Brown repeatedly brings up the fact that Mercury’s loss to The Republic would be fatal. Millions of people are slaughtered in the campaign, entire continents and the many populous cities within are razed, flooded, nuked, to prevent (The Republic) or achieve (The Society) this end. The entire goddamned book is essentially about the Battle of Mercury… and then, near the end, we hear that the entire Earth has been conquered by the Golds and it literally occupies two sentences. I had to reread that little part like three times to have it sink in. One planet? Life or death, worth billions of lives to retain for the cause. Worth possibly betraying what the entire Rising is about to keep Mercury. But Earth? Eh, fuck it. Whoops, it’s gone? Oh well. Back to whatever the fuck else we were doing.

It made me pause in my reading and question: what, exactly are the fucking stakes here? I don’t understand what gets weight in this universe and what doesn’t.

I just… ugh. I basically want Book Six to come out and Wrap. This. Shit. Up. Brown’s strengths as a world-builder have grown throughout this series, but he’s losing the ability to focus on the main story and keep it going. He’s basically made it impossible for any one faction to realistically “win”, which seems to be controlling the entire solar system for some reason, rather than living in some kind of Cold War-esque balance with the constant threat of mutually-assured destruction hanging over everyone’s head (I can picture a lot of fun tales to be told in that kind of universe). I’d read smaller stories that just explore in greater depth one or more of the various aspects of this universe that are interesting. Make it like Bank’s The Culture, where it’s just the universe that these stories exist in.

But I’m getting pretty tired of the main event, and the increasingly-ludicrous plot twists Brown is resorting to to keep the putative main story interesting. It’s getting harder to believe, in the face of millions of casualties and a clear sense that logistics is the driving factor of this war, to keep pinning its outcome on a small handful of individuals who keep bouncing off of each other in more and more eye-rollingly fantastical ways.

The first three books of Red Rising were very satisfying; the fourth book shifted a lot of things about the series, but introduced enough to keep me interested. This fifth entry really piles on new narrative debt and pays little of the already-large pile of existing debt off. I struggle to see how this can all be wrapped up in a sixth book (and am dreading what I assume is an inevitable bloating of size to Stephensonian girth for that entry). Likewise, I don’t see how much more plausible drama can be further wrung out of the main characters enough to keep it going into a seventh book. I really don’t know how he wraps this all up, and fear this series ending with a “Season 8 of Game of Thrones” unsatisfying thud of a conclusion.

Let’s hope, much like this series has done to date, that Brown can pull one more miraculous saving throw and bring it all home in a way that satisfies rather than disappoints. Unfortunately, Dark Age worries me as to whether or not that can still happen.