“Reputation is a fine thing sometimes,” says Darrow, the conqueror-with-a-conscience who anchors Pierce Brown’s formidable Red Rising trilogy. But for all the power imbued by our hero’s intergalactic repute, Brown’s haunting space opera hasn’t gotten the real-world acclaim it has deserved since its 2014 debut. In fact, you could call Brown science fiction’s best-kept secret.
In Morning Star, the trilogy’s devastating and inspiring final chapter, Darrow has broken the color-caste Society and must pay for it, facing a wrathful sentence from the elite Gold class he infiltrated and deceived. He’s shattered, captured, and betrayed at the hands of his greatest antagonist, the Jackal, but despite the widespread knowledge of his traitorous secret (he was born a low-level Red), the war he began now rages through the cosmos fiercer than ever, even without him. He may escape from his captors, but the clock ticks for the scrappy Martian miner–turned–monstrous warlord to seduce an army (and rein in the recklessness of interim leader Sevro), reconcile the temptations of vengeance with his purported pursuit of justice, and face the reality of a future he may actually get the chance to build—provided he can first rebuild himself.
The violence here is grimmer, its humor more unsettling, its forgiveness rarer, its casualties more sickening. As in any trilogy ender, no character is safe, and certain fates will shock as much in their injustice as in the vivid, lurching way Brown pens them. Unlike its predecessors, Morning Star appears to rely less on action (though it’s still gorydamn full of it) than on diplomacy. While social politics have always been a large part of Darrow’s quest, his momentum decelerates with occasional homilies on governmental righteousness. In a respect, Brown is simply laying the foundation for the alliances and treaties that will define this restructured civilization beyond Morning Star’s final page, but they can veer into overly discursive territory unflattering for a Reaper with a death wish.
Brown’s writing is best when he flirts with volume, oscillating between thundering space escapes and hushed, tense parleys between rivals, where the cinematic dialogue oozes such specificity and suspense you could almost hear a pin drop between pages. His achievement is in creating an uncomfortably familiar world of flaw, fear, and promise; Darrow’s—evident in the series’ satisfying but sure-to-be-divisive ending—is in finding reasons for its redemption rather than its destruction. Oh, how this Red has risen. B+