Golden Son is the second book in Pierce Brown’s The Red Rising Trilogy. The first book, Red Rising, was good but also a little too derivative. If I tell you that the book is basically Ender’s Game meets The Hunger Games I’ve conveyed pretty much the whole story.
I was intrigued enough to give the sequel a try, but I wasn’t expecting too much. As a result, I was totally unprepared for the way that Morning Star took all the world-building and characterization of Red Rising, strapped a jet pack and machine guns to it, blasted off, and then didn’t release the throttle for the next several hundred pages. So yeah: the first thing you should know is that there is a ton of great action, and the plot is breakneck.1
But it’s not just mindless mayhem. Pierce Brown has enough to say about the issues of systematic oppression and justice to give the book solid, thematic heft. It’s not moralistic or preachy, but it’s sincere enough to be genuinely engaging. This makes the action and combat meaningful and also much, much more tense. Brown’s characterizations are also shockingly deep. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such compelling, well-drawn characters in a book with this many explosions.
The plot and characterizations borrow from established sci-fi tropes very heavily, and so if you don’t read the whole thing or don’t pay close attention you may end up thinking of it as formulaic. But Brown isn’t an imitator. He’s an innovator. The characters are familiar, but new. The plot goes the way you think it will, and then veers suddenly off. The theme seems simplistic at first, but then refuses to be shallow.
I don’t really know why they decided to market this as YA. The first book maybe/sort of was, but this one certainly is not. The characters are the right age, I guess, but the book’s tone is just far too mature for the kind of fluffy stuff you get in YA. And don’t get me wrong: there’s a place for fluffy. Fluffy can be fun. This book just isn’t fluffy.
It’s also been compared to Game of Thrones because there’s a high body count and a quasi-medieval setting.2But I don’t think that’s really fair. Although George R. R. Martin can write, I never got past A Game of Thrones because the world was so unrelentingly amoral.
There’s a lot of violence in this book, but it’s never as voyeuristic as A Game of Thrones, for one thing, and the obsession with sexual violence is gone. Most of all, however, this is an emphatically moral book. Which is part of why I love it. It’s fundamentally an old-fashioned story about principle and about virtue.
If Red Rising was a fusion of Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games, Golden Son is a fusion of Ender’s Game and Dune. Those are my two favorite science fiction novels of all time, and so that’s lofty company for Golden Son to find itself in. I can think of no higher praise. I’m not sure that it will stand the test of time as those novels have, but think it stands a realistic chance of being the kind of book that—like those two—people are still reading 10 or even 50 years after the initial publication.
Golden Son has been at the top of my 2016 Hugo list ever since I read it. I think it deserves the win, but as a second book in a trilogy it’s going to have an uphill battle. This is especially true because the book won’t mean as much to people who haven’t read Red Rising first. Plot-wise, you can skip it, but unless you’ve been through that story with the characters, you simply won’t understand the relationships that are already well-established when Golden Son opens. I don’t know who’s in charge of the Hugo packets—Del Ray (the publisher) or Random House (the distributor)—but they really need to include Red Mars along with Golden Son if they want the book to be fully appreciated by the voters.