I found out about Pierce Brown through the MacStories guys. So I wasn't really sure what I was getting into beyond the basic gist of the book. When I first started reading, I found myself in that familiar YA territory. A well-worn mix of heavy-handed metaphors, large dumps of exposition, and very understandable rules and factions. I wasn't having a lot of fun and found myself ready to finish the book and move on.
However, just before the halfway point, there's a crucial scene where the story locks into the lead character Darrow's emotions, and the book stops being about the setting. It's an odd place because we got through depictions of repression, culminating in him losing everything. But those scenes felt rote, just setting up a reason for the plot to keep moving. The world-building is imaginative and detailed, but it's lifeless.
We're most of the way into Darrow's transformation from repressed miner to privileged noble that we get the book's first real moment. I'm not going to spoil it, but it's the first place where Darrow came alive for me. We move from being told how cruel the world is and how unfair everything is, to getting to see Darrow feel something about it. It seems as if the calculation is to make Darrow look devil may care, but we never get a real sense of his humanity.
I was locked in even as the rest of the book plays out as Lord of the Flies meets Crusader Kings. However, the flip in tone held. Darrow feels less like yet another Campbellian meta hero, and his rivals are mostly more than snarling monsters. While they do drip with privilege and anger, some are human and likable. The worst of them is the sort of callous rich asshole that would probably end up Congress.
Brown does some really heavy-lifting with the last half of the book to make a book that doesn’t feel like a screenplay treatment in a video game setting. (That’s not just a YA issue, I’ve read plenty of adult Science Fiction that suffers from the same problems.)
Brown’s world mixes 1%-er Objectivism with Roman fetishism with a healthy dose of a caste system to create his world. Darrow starts out as a Red, a celtic-tinged culture of miners toiling beneath the Martian soil. He is transformed into a Gold, the ruling class. A mix of type-A’s with a future and spoiled hedonists, the Golds run not only Mars but the entire Solar System.
I’ll cede that it’s not great social commentary, as it’s relatively obvious. What Brown does well, mostly in the second half off the book, is make characters that you care about. He combines that with a keen eye for pacing and action to keep the book moving at a nice clip. I peeled through the last hundred or so pages in a late-night session; I was hooked. There’s plenty of heavy-handed social commentary out there, most of it is missing these kinds of compelling characters.
So while the book dragged a bit while it got through the world-building, the latter half makes up for it with pure momentum. We’re geared up for the sequels at the end of the book. I am definitely going to grab the next book in the series, and I hope that Brown sticks the landing.
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