Dark Age: This series is starting to feel its length

Dark Age by Pierce Brown science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsDark Age by Pierce Brown science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsDark Age by Pierce Brown

Dark Age (2019) is Pierce Brown’s fifth installment in his Homeric-styled RED RISING space opera, and it comes pre-loaded with many of the set scenes fans have come to expect: major space battles, desperate fights against overwhelming odds, brutal deaths and torture scenes, labyrinthian scheming, verbal volleys nearly as nasty as the physical ones (though with less decapitation), great names, the slaughter of millions, painful introspection. It’s all here and all handled with the same effectively, skillfully bombastic style as the prior four novels in the series.

Which is both the strength and weakness of this latest episode. On the one hand, all of those story elements, combined with Brown’s stylistic gifts, are what have made this series so compulsively readable. On the other hand, for the very first time in this series, the propulsive nature of the story began to flag for me as I started to feel I’d been down these paths before (either in the series, in this book, or both), that Brown was going a bit too often to the same well here. That Dark Age is the longest book in the series, coming in at nearly 800 pages, probably contributed to some of my sense of wheel-spinning, though I’ll note that despite some impatience, I did finish the book in two sittings.

I’m not going to go into much detail regarding plot because a) I want to avoid spoilers for the first few books and b) as Brown’s fans know, his plotting involves wheels within wheels within octahedrons within dodecahedrons within decagrammic antiprisms. Suffice to say that, big picture, the solar system remains at war, with Darrow — abandoned by his own government and thus grossly outnumbered and outgunned — fighting on Mercury, and Virginia (Sovereign and Darrow’s wife) fighting on Mars to keep the new Republic together while trying to convince a recalcitrant Senate to go to her husband’s aid. Meanwhile, subplots pile up as good people, bad people, good people who do bad things (which includes the aforementioned folks) and bad people who do good things all try and scheme their way into power or out of desperate situations, like being kidnapped (Darrow and Virginia’s son Pax) or imprisoned (Lyria). If those names only call up vague memories, there’s a helpful glossary of the large cast of characters.

The Red Rising Saga (Book Series) by Pierce BrownThe story begins with an atomic-sized bang (in this series “atomic-sized” can often be taken literally), with a rescue mission/space battle/edge-of-the-seat escape.

From there the book, as has been the pattern, bounces back and forth between those sort of operatic action scenes and more character-based scenes.

Each of those can be further subdivided, with the former switching between one-on-one duels and massive assaults that destroy entire cities. The latter, meanwhile, moves amongst sometimes tense, sometimes moving scenes between characters and interior monologues/introspectives, often filled with fear, self-doubt, and even self-loathing.

Individually, each of these various types of scenes play out fine; the battles are exciting, the escapes harrowing. But when one starts to expect another harrowing, by-the-thinnest-of-margins escapes, or when one predicts another as-close-to-fatal-wound-as-one-can-get-that-will-end-up-not-being fatal, that’s when the problems start. And while the introspections are indeed revealing of character, they do sometimes slide into what has been one of the few consistent minor issues I’ve had throughout the series, which is that these monologues sometimes tell us what we already know, or what might be better shown less bluntly or forthrightly. I love what Brown is showing through these monologues (and sometimes dialogues) — characters struggling with doing bad in order to do good. And the question of whether or not Darrow can still claim the mantle of “hero,” which has been earlier raised, is here brought into its full thoughtful glory. I just wish the reader got to struggle a bit more with it as well (not that Brown answers that question — just that the characters’ thoughts can sometimes crowd out the reader’s). And finally, I could have done with a little less bringing back of the past, though I won’t go into details on that, and though I do recognize that the way the past haunts the present is one of the major themes.

Dark Age is by no means a bad book. The action, plotting, and character depth are all quite strong, despite issues of pacing and repetitiveness. That it is in my mind one of the weaker installments is more testament to the strength of the rest of the series, and also due to Brown at this point competing with himself. My complaint isn’t that this newest episode is bad, but more so that for the first time it didn’t all feel wholly necessary. That said, another book clearly is entirely necessary, and I’m still looking forward to that.

Published in July 2019. NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The bestselling author of Morning Star returns to the Red Rising universe with the thrilling sequel to Iron Gold. He broke the chains. Then he broke the world…. A decade ago Darrow led a revolution, and laid the foundations for a new world. Now he’s an outlaw. Cast out of the very Republic he founded, with half his fleet destroyed, he wages a rogue war on Mercury. Outnumbered and outgunned, is he still the hero who broke the chains? Or will he become the very evil he fought to destroy? In his darkening shadow, a new hero rises. Lysander au Lune, the displaced heir to the old empire, has returned to bridge the divide between the Golds of the Rim and Core. If united, their combined might may prove fatal to the fledgling Republic. On Luna, the embattled Sovereign of the Republic, Virginia au Augustus, fights to preserve her precious demokracy and her exiled husband. But one may cost her the other, and her son is not yet returned. Abducted by enemy agents, Pax au Augustus must trust in a Gray thief, Ephraim, for his salvation. Far across the void, Lyria, a Red refugee accused of treason, makes a desperate bid for freedom with the help of two unlikely new allies. Fear dims the hopes of the Rising, and as power is seized, lost, and reclaimed, the worlds spin on and on toward a new Dark Age.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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6 comments

  1. I think you have a great sense of Brown’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. He has certainly hit it out of the park with this series. I’m one of the very few people I know who hasn’t cared for any of these books.

  2. Susan Whitehead /

    I disagree. I thought this book was the best in the series so far.

    • Susan, what was different about this one for you?

      • Susan Whitehead /

        Marion, I thought the action was very tight in this book. There were a lot of intense character sub-stories that I think just added to the “grab you and shake you by the throat” effect. No downtime which, admittedly, got a little exhausting. I liked that there were multiple POVs including Virginia – the first for her! Lysander’s development is, I think, gripping and just emphasizes the bad choices one can make (which, of course, Darrow has done too) when you are convinced you are right. Yes, it was 800 pages and that is somewhat daunting. But, in truth, I don’t know what I would have left out. It is a very complicated world.

    • Not arguing, by the way, merely curious.

    • It actually wouldn’t surprise me if others feel that way. If you don’t mind (or don’t have) the feeling I had, then it’s more (800 pages as noted) of what people liked in the first books, so what’s not to love? I’m guessing people will also like that Virginia gets a POV

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