Iron Gold by Pierce Brown
Warning: this review contains spoilers!
“War eats the victors last.”
Stepping back into the worlds of Red Rising was not as easy as I expected it to be. The twists and turns of Morning Star, of which I remember there being many, are a muddle in my mind, a fact I was unaware of until the first few chapters of Iron Gold had me searching through that muddle and coming up woefully short.
I probably should have gone back and read some spoiler-filled reviews of Morning Star before diving in to this, but I didn’t (stubborn, you could say) and instead forged on until things began to settle and I got comfortable. And I did get comfortable. There’s something about these books, which I’ll get to later, that is enormously comfortable for me.
The short version of this review is that I’ll gladly give Iron Gold four out of five Starshells (haha, I am so clever). I will also gladly say that this book sets up beautifully for the next one, Dark Age, which will apparently hit shelves later this year. While parts of this book might be deemed slow, a lot happens in the final quarter and almost none of it is resolved. Cue months of anxious waiting for Brown’s howling fan base.
Brown set himself a big task—showing what happens after a seemingly successful rebellion, dirty laundry and all—and rises to this challenge. Ten years have passed and the solar system is a fucking mess. Nothing has gone smoothly and the reader gets to experience that in many different ways, from the struggles of Lyria’s family and the anger she feels toward the Sovereign she believes has abandoned her people, to Darrow’s personal pain over what the endless fighting has cost him. While the book is violent and ‘good’ characters find honor and glory in violence, we also see that violence and war have devastating repercussions no one can accurately prepare for. These worlds simmer with anger, resentment, and racial tension, and Brown doesn’t back down from dealing with that. It feels real, a more than plausible aftermath born out of the first three books.
I struggled at first with the multiple point of view characters. While, yes, it has something to do with needing to make the transition from existing exclusively within Darrow’s head, it also has to do with the fact that it took so long for the two crucial POVs to come into contact with each other. I knew it had to be Ephraim and Lyria who drew the story threads together; it was the only thing that made sense, but I was impatient in the early chapters. I won’t say some of it was filler, but my experience with the January Hive Read made it clear to me that if there are to be multiple POVs, I desire at least some of those POVs to interact with each other from the start, or at least very close to it. For me, the way characters interact with each other, and absorbing their differing interpretations of those interactions, is crucial to the development of my own interest in them and their stories.
When it comes to POVs, I find it interesting to compare this book to Red Rising, which was my favorite of the original trilogy. Yes, Red Rising is a single POV book, but it features a cast of characters in a confined setting, putting them continuously at each others’ throats. We got to know those characters intimately within the setting of the Institute, and I found that intimacy thoroughly captivating. The books that follow lack this, and, for me, it shows.
In some ways, Lysander’s arc in this book is the most tragic and possibly the most well-crafted because he really ought to know better. He’s not a bad guy. But he can’t shake his preference for his own color or the belief in its superiority and necessity. We see him, early in the book, make a mistake—saving just Seraphina, a Gold, instead of saving multiple lowColors—and he even understands that this was a mistake, that he chose poorly, that he betrayed Cassius’ teachings. He laments and mopes over this for a while, and yet it still has no effect on him in the grand scheme of things. He ends the book with a stronger belief in the need for the Society to reassert control—for the proper order of things to return—than he began it with and that’s actually, when you stop and think about it, not necessarily something that’s easy to write and convey. Lysander has the makings of a hero—I still have hope for him—and even authors want their heroes to act like heroes.
Perhaps my biggest problem with the plot of this book is the fact that it seemed super obvious to me that the real threat from the au Grimmus clan was Atalantia. While the prologue doesn’t name her, I was certain of this from the start and it irked me that it never occurred to anyone else. The cloistering of the Ash Lord on his island should have been a massive red flag to Darrow and others.
Additionally, I didn’t care for Lysander’s infatuation with Seraphina; this seemed forced and unlikely, a convenient way to help him down the Path of Stupid Decisions.
There are several fine layers of gloss on this book. One is all the tech stuff about spaceships and suits of armor and powerful weapons. If you couldn’t tell, that particular gloss is lost on me. But a different layer of gloss is one I find super shiny and compelling, and that’s the Roman/Greek gloss. Yes, all those names like Romulus, Diomedes, and Atalantia. That harkening back to ancient Rome and the Republic and a time in our real-world history when giants strode across the earth and made their mark on it. Gods help me, but I delight in that stuff and Brown describes it so well, he’s made me as irrationally giddy over Diomedes as Lysander is. I mean, we’re talking ancient Romans and Greeks in fucking space. That’s fucking cool. Can you imagine what Julius Caesar would have done with a solar system at his fingertips? That’s what keeps me turning the pages in these books. It’s a hook, expertly placed by Brown, and I’m happy to be reeled in.
But what does it say that my favorite part of this series is something that isn’t a character or a plot twist or the writing? What does it say that the thing I am most drawn to is a piece of worldbuilding? What does it say when part of the reason why I like a book is because the author benefits from using the name of one of my favorite figures in the Iliad?
It’s possible (read: probable) this says more about me than about these books. Maybe I’m not the right audience (or maybe I’m exactly the right audience). Or maybe I fixate on weird things (let’s be honest, the most likely scenario). It could also give me the opportunity to be negative about the elements of this book that I don’t find compelling. But isn’t it better to revel in the pure and simple fact that this worldbuilding gloss has me reading science fiction? It speaks to my imagination and that’s all I can ask for in the end.
P.S. Does anyone else think Cassius is still alive? He expires conveniently off page….
(For reference, my star ratings for the first three Red Rising books:
Red Rising – 5 stars
Golden Son – 3.5 stars
Morning Star – 4 stars)