Dark Age is beyond brutal and violent in ways that cheapen the story to the point where I’m not sure I’ll pick up the next installment. But I will never deny that Brown is a master world builder and character writer.
Rating: 3 Stars
SPOILER WARNING! This review has spoilers for Iron Gold and Dark Age (and oddly enough, Season 6 of The Walking Dead). If you would like to read my NON SPOILER review, please see my Goodreads review.
Author: Pierce Brown
Publisher: Del Rey
Release Date: July 30th, 2019
Synopsis: For a decade Darrow led a revolution against the corrupt color-coded Society. Now, outlawed by the very Republic he founded, he wages a rogue war on Mercury in hopes that he can still salvage the dream of Eo. But as he leaves death and destruction in his wake, is he still the hero who broke the chains? Or will another legend rise to take his place?
Lysander au Lune, the heir in exile, has returned to the Core. Determined to bring peace back to mankind at the edge of his sword, he must overcome or unite the treacherous Gold families of the Core and face down Darrow over the skies of war-torn Mercury.
But theirs are not the only fates hanging in the balance.
On Luna, Mustang, Sovereign of the Republic, campaigns to unite the Republic behind her husband. Beset by political and criminal enemies, can she outwit her opponents in time to save him?
Once a Red refugee, young Lyria now stands accused of treason, and her only hope is a desperate escape with unlikely new allies.
Abducted by a new threat to the Republic, Pax and Electra, the children of Darrow and Sevro, must trust in Ephraim, a thief, for their salvation—and Ephraim must look to them for his chance at redemption.
As alliances shift, break, and re-form—and power is seized, lost, and reclaimed—every player is at risk in a game of conquest that could turn the Rising into a new Dark Age.
I loved The Walking Dead and watched it religiously for the first six seasons. The writing sometimes faltered, the characters sometimes did stupid things, but I still loved it and was invested in these stories. And then the finale of season six brought the brutal murder of Glen that left me feeling sick for weeks, and I just couldn’t watch anymore. It wasn’t because Glen died, it was how he died and how they showed it. I realized that the show was just trying to one up itself and its violence. It was going for shock, for something to be talked about. That was the moment that I checked out. I still read episode summaries every once in a while because I want to know what is happening in the story, but I had no desire to submit myself to misery porn anymore.
Why am I telling you about my break up with The Walking Dead? Because this is the same reason why I am breaking up with the Red Rising Saga.
I will not deny that Brown is a phenomenal writer. His ability to imbue raw emotion into his prose was one of the things that made the original Red Rising Trilogy one of my favorite science fiction trilogies of all time. He mastered epic world building that felt light as a feather and was able to deliver neck snapping plot twists that still make me cringe to this day. But then the trilogy became a saga and while I really enjoyed Iron Gold, the world Pierce was building started to become too dense. Then Dark Age happened.
Dark Age is too dense, too graphically violent, and just too damn much. I am no stranger to 1000+ page stories filled with violence and a vast cast of characters, but Dark Age felt muddied with all it was trying to be. And the thing that was missing, the thing that made me love the Red Rising trilogy so much, was the emotion. This novel was too far up its own ass to evoke anything other than feeling shitty.
While epic stories tend to have very full casts of characters, Dark Age felt bloated with characters and most of the time I couldn’t keep them straight. With constantly shifting allegiances and never-ending reminiscing on past betrayals, I never knew who was friend or who was foe or who, if anyone, I should be rooting for. I gave up on trying to remember who any of the secondary cast were less than a quarter into the book, which didn’t help with feeling invested in any of their stories. (Side note: Pierce, for the love of all that is good in this world, please stop having characters whose name starts with A. TOO MANY As.)
And then there were all the almost deaths and deaths reversed. I knew Cassius wasn’t dead in Iron Gold. He was always a matter of “no body, no crime” and while I loved how he came back, I also felt nothing for it (with the exception that it made me happy Lysander was butthurt that Cassius saved Darrow). And let’s talk for a minute about Darrow totally not dying. I was 100% positive he would perish in this book, and I almost felt cheated when he didn’t. Brown took to him right to the edge, but either lacked the fortitude to kill his darling or couldn’t see a plot without him. I love Darrow, but he needs to die. Sorry, moving on. So, the Jackal coming back? Didn’t see that coming, but again, I felt nothing. His return, probably meant to strike dread into the hearts of Howlers around the world, merely elicited a shrug from me. The closest I came to really feeling the emotions Brown used to evoke was when Virginia was attacked during the Day of Red Doves. The brutality of this scene was so well done, and it felt like the kind of death/plot twist that I would curse and praise Brown for. But no, she lived on as we find out later in the book, and while I am happy that she survived, I couldn’t help but feel that my earlier emotions were now hollowed out.
There are so many other moments throughout Dark Age that missed the mark for me, but the pivotal moment, the moment that I gave up on this series, was the death of Victra’s newborn child, Ulysses. For us to spend time with Victra through her pregnancy, only to have the baby horrifically murdered for nothing more than shock value is beyond not okay with me. I realize that war is not full of puppies and rainbows, but everyone has their limit for what they can handle in fiction, and this was it for me. This was my Glen moment for the Red Rising series. I can’t remember when Victra’s pregnancy was first brought into the story (was it in Iron Gold?), but for it to end in nothing but a violent show of “look what I can do” by Brown makes me feel sick.
There is no shortage of other violence and wasted plot lines that brought me to my end with this series. Seraphina is abruptly cut down in what felt like Brown realizing that he needs Lysander to be available for a different woman, so why not kill another female character off? There is even a line at some point before her death that is basically Lysander thinking “gee, I can’t believe I used to have the hots for this one”. Her death seemed like nothing more than plot course correction. The entirety of Ephrim and Sefi’s plot was dull and lacked all sense of emotional depth. Ephrim, for all his many faults and fuck ups, was one of my favorites of the new characters introduced in the Saga books, but I could barely keep my focus during his chapters. They served only to slog through their bit of plot and then die, horrifically, for the introduction of yet another overly violent character. Because we don’t have enough of those already…
The Red Rising series has always been violent. But with the Saga books, Dark Age in particular, it felt like Brown was just including gore and violence for the sake of more gore and violence. It feels never ending in Dark Age and there is more to epic stories about war then the gore. It cheapened the story for me and more often than not I had to stop caring about the characters and their stories, lest I get dragged into despair. At a certain point, it feels like Brown was writing the violence and gore to see how far he could go, instead of focusing on cohesive plot development.
All of this being said, there are many parts of this book that are good. While dense in my opinion, one cannot argue that Brown’s world building is anything but epic. There are so many layers to what he writes and it’s something that he pulls off flawlessly most of the time. Some moments the world building took me out of the story with the pretentious tone (coughLYSANDERcough), but I can still appreciate that Brown put a lot of work and effort into this book. The epic scale of some scenes beggar belief and for any author to be able to bring them down into the page is an applaudable feat in and of itself.
With the exception of Lyria, whose plot/character goes totally sideways, I felt like one of the things Brown did excel at in this story was writing his main characters. I felt like the inclusion of Virgina’s POV chapters was fantastic and finally gave some good insight to her mind as the Sovereign. Probably the best written was Lysander and I say that as someone who hated every single moment Lysander was on the page. Lysander is white boy pretention at its peak and I loathe him with every fiber of my being. But…he is incredibly well written. Having so much insight into his character is what gave me the ability to hate him with such vehemence. Lysander is interesting to me because he is either a villain or a hero, depending on the reader. He is written in a way that casts him as both, leaving the choice to the whims of the readers, which I think is brilliant. Even Darrow is a bit of both in these Saga books. The good or evil of men really comes down to which side is telling the tale, and Brown shows us both sides, just to fuck with us a bit more.
I do need to point out, in one last disappointment, that Dark Age features Sevro very little and that really has an effect on the enjoyment. Sevro, oddly enough, is the heart and soul of the Red Rising novels, and for him to be so absent is a slap in the face.
Dark Age boils down to this for me: I used to finish Brown’s Red Rising novels and think “this was a masterpiece”, but when I put Dark Age down, I thought “That was 757 pages of plot course correction and misery porn.” While there were just enough teasers at the end to intrigue me, I cannot say yet whether I will actually read the next (and hopefully) final book in the Red Rising Saga. Like with The Walking Dead, I still want to know what happens, but I’m just not sure I can stomach it any longer.