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.

The Books of 2020, #4: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe

Ooooh, down to 441 pages with this fucker! Barely a pamphlet! Good thing, because it was a real fuckin’ depressing read!

I consider myself pretty well-rounded in most areas of history, certainly more so than the average civilian. But I realized recently that, while I’m conversant with Irish history up _to_ The Troubles, I don’t know much about The Troubles themselves.

This is probably due to my general disdain for the Irish-American plastic paddy pro-IRA loudmouth that Chicago is lousy with, and was particularly lousy with when I was young in the 80’s and 90’s and The Troubles were still at full boil. The simplistic “fuck the British, Protestants suck, Catholics are saints, the IRA is pure!” narrative that dominates American thought about the era settled into my mind and I haven’t been bothered to interrogate that until recently, even though I ambiently knew that my understanding was puddle-deep and probably mostly wrong.

So I was a bit stymied to find out that no one really seems to think a good single-volume history of The Troubles has been written yet. This particular book kept coming up though, and, having read it, I see why.

Say Nothing views the modern era of The Troubles (1969-today) via the lens of the disappearance of Jean McConville, a 38-year old, mostly apolitical widowed mother of ten, from her Belfast flat in 1972. Her life up to the disappearance and through the decades-long investigation into it is interwoven with the story of how the mostly-moribund legacy IRA was woken up in the late 60’s to become fully active again and how it grew and changed throughout the conflict and its putative ending in the Good Friday Accords and since.

The McConville case ends up being the spine on which pretty detailed biographies of both Delours Price (early convert to the active wing of the IRA) and Gerry Adams (never-quite-publicly-admitted leader of the IRA during most of this time turned legit politician via Sinn Féin later on; gets most of the credit for bringing peace of a sort to Northern Ireland via The Good Friday Accords) are hung. Numerous smaller players are also brought into closer or further focus along the way, depending on their relationship to the McConville case and the bigger events that define The Troubles.

The book hooks the reader well, better than a typical straight history probably would, as it has this rather sensationalist criminal case at its heart. There’s also a fair amount of reasonably exciting legal action around the very publication of this book covered near the end. That one also gets a fairly even, medium-detailed history of The Troubles, mostly from a grounds-eye level, is just a bonus.

That said, the McConville case IS the primary story being told here, and the further away a person or event is from the people directly involved in that, the less detail there is. Hateful bigot shithead Ian Paisley makes a couple of appearances, but there’s very little coverage of, say, the Loyalists’ beliefs and goals throughout the conflict, or much in the way of how the British government’s policies developed.

So keep all that in mind. I’m purposely not going into any detail on the McConville case itself as that’s the hook that will pull you through the book. Even if you don’t care about The Troubles themselves at all, that case has enough twists and turns to keep the average true crime junkie fully engaged. Lastly, as somebody coming at this from a historian’s angle, the coverage of all of the issues and drama surrounding the bulk of the primary sources used to tell this story was quite interesting to me as well.

Overall, Say Nothing gets my recommendation for anyone interested in The Troubles, and it contains enough detail that you can come in with next to no prior knowledge and follow along.

The Books of 2020, #3: The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Clocking in at a measly 528 pages was this delight. I’ve somehow never heard of this dude or his books before, and there’s a shit-ton of ’em. I saw a recommendation for this one from 1995 from a different author I like, so I gave it a go.

And I like it. A lot. Genuinely do not understand how this isn’t already like a 6-part HBO miniseries, since, unlike some other authors we could name, dude tells the ENTIRE STORY IN ONE BOOK AND IS DONE, FULL STOP,  there’s almost no magic, no dragons… would be an easy and engrossing tale to tell.

That tale is basically a fictionalized, compressed retelling of the real-world Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, aka Catholic Europe’s slow retaking of Spain and Portugal from the Muslim powers that had conquered almost all of it.

Kay wisely chooses to “lightly base” rather than actually set his novels of this type on real world history, as it allows him to bend events to the needs of the plot and avoids dorks like, say, me, nitpicking him on every frickin’ minor detail of historical accuracy.

That said, everything about the setting has a pretty direct analogy to our own history: Jaddites? Christians. Kindath? Jews. Asharites? Muslims. Esperana? Spain. Etc., and so on. If you know anything about the real history here, you know the gist of the background of this story. Hell, even the map at the front of the book of the fictional world is basically a map of Europe drawn by a not-particularly gifted child.

Having the world setting basically defined for him allows Kay to focus on the characters and the writing, and it’s all very good, better than the fantasy/historical genre’s average, for sure. The author is a real-world poet, so key characters are also poets (which also fits with the historical reality of the cultural high point that was Caliphate Spain under Muslim rule), and hey guess what: there’s some pretty good poetry presented throughout.

The plot spans a good chunk of years and huge events, but fundamentally revolves around a love story, or stories, rather. There is the brilliant Kindath lady doctor, caught up in the wars of an increasingly intolerant age. She’s torn in her affections between the noble, but married, lead warrior of Jaddite Esperana, and the finest poet and assassin of the Asharites. Much like our world, love across any of those interfaith boundaries is forbidden as well.

I’d argue that the “love” story between the two male protagonists is even more crucial to the story, and as affecting. It’s not a romantic love, but a love between two men who see the high ability, the excellence of themselves in the other, and, more depressingly, what other futures could exist for them if their era and place didn’t demand war of them.

Lastly, I’d argue that there is a love story between each of the main characters and the very land they inhabit; much like our own Al-Andalus was, Al-Rassan is a tolerant (by contemporary standards) polity in which all three cultures are, more or less, able to bloom to their highest levels, fed by the interplay between different beliefs and arts, etc.

The story plays out with these relationships sorting themselves out against a background of a huge cultural and political changing of the guards, with the scientifically and artistically backwards Jaddites reaching a peak of military prowess, and slowly grinding the more advanced, but decadent and infighting Asharite polities to dust before them. The Asharites are also being pressed from within by the extremely intolerant, purist branch of their mainstream religion. These folks want all the art, dancing, poetry and beauty of their lands overthrown in favor of brutally strict piety and endless war against all other faiths. Sound familiar?

Loves are lost, particularly as they all work towards a goal that each knows can only spell the final end of declining Al-Rassan, and that, whoever “wins”, what follows will be different and, in many ways, can only be lesser than what came before.

For all of the battles and fighting and loss and violence that telling this tale involves, what stuck with me, as the reader, was how well Kay imbues the entire telling with just a strong sense of loss, both for the victors and the losers of any given event. That struggle is between these folks knowing what their duty is and what will be lost if they succeed in performing it.

It ends up making for a engrossing and affecting read. It gets my recommendation.