This review will not contain any major spoilers for the series, but will include discussion of characterization and overarching themes.
Reading the Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown was the first time I got what a space opera was supposed to feel like.
I’ve read my share of fantasy, but science fiction has always struck me as a little sterile. However, my New Year’s resolution was to read more of it, so this New York times bestseller and Campbell award nominated author seemed like a good pick. I was promised breathtaking adventure and this did not disappoint.
Thousands of years in the future, human society has spread across the solar system, with each planet ruled by its own governor, reporting to the Sovereign who rules from Luna, Earth’s moon. Thanks to genetic and surgical manipulation, society is segregated by color, a designation that is also represented by peoples’ hair, eyes, and metal “sigils,” which are embedded in their flesh. Each color has a singular purpose. Our story follows Darrow, a 16 year old Red ‘helldiver’ miner who goes undercover to train as one of the ruling Gold class to lead his people in a revolt — the titular Red Rising.
The world building throughout the trilogy is immense, and the unique vocabulary does a lot of that early work, immediately immersing us in Darrow’s dangerous, sweaty life as a Red slave. Words like “bloodydamn,” “helldiver,” and “prime” help to establish that this society has its own slang, and it’s easy to imagine how these phrases evolved from the English we speak today. Once Darrow is among the Golds, there is a distinct linguistic shift, and certain words and phrases are replaced by a veneer of class. “Bloodydamn” becomes “gorydamn” and Golds pompously refer to each other as “my goodman.”
However, one of the major flaws in the world building is the complete failure of the narrative to acknowledge the irony of overthrowing a color-based system of slavery — in a galaxy where everyone is white. With the exception of the war-like Obsidians, every other mention of skin color in the book refers to characters pale skin, particularly in contrast to their color. This galactic white-washing is seemingly confirmed by the way the author describes his influences for the colors’ distinct accents: “Darrow has an Irish accent in my head. Golds speak with a very Scandinavian accent. The Obsidians have a hybrid Maori sound.” I refuse to write this off as a failure of imagination: any vision of humanity’s future that does not include actual people of color is inherently racist.
The racial discomfort is further compounded by the fact that even within this narrative ostensibly about the uprising of an entire caste of people, startlingly few of the characters in the novel are actually from that caste. The ensemble of major characters are almost exclusively Gold, as are the leaders of the revolution. Instead of a story about the proletariat overthrowing the ruling class, this story is ultimately about the clash between rival factions who already have power.
The series does only marginally better when it comes to its female characters, who are trained as warriors right alongside the boys, and indeed, ruled by a female Sovereign. But of the three major female characters, none of them manage to transcend their tropes. The first, Darrow’s wife Eo, is killed in the first chapter, only to be tearfully idolized thus inspiring Darrow to embark on his rebellious mission. The second major female character, Victra, is a fierce and ruthless warrior who first falls in love with Darrow before eventually (off screen) getting together with his best friend instead.
Finally, there’s Virginia, the third major female character and ultimate love interest who throughout the entire trilogy is referred to by the nickname Mustang. While other characters are also given nicknames during the Hunger Games-esque trials of the first novel, they go on to be known by their true names, while a quick text search of the e-book shows a mere 68 instances of “Virginia” throughout the entire trilogy, while “Mustang” is referred to 1,135 times, called that not only by Darrow, but her family and the Sovereign herself. Though Virginia is a proven fighter, her true strength is her mind, and she is one of the key diplomats and strategists of the series.
It’s tempting to write Virginia off as a Mary Sue, but her deft competency is overshadowed by Darrow’s blinding perfection. Despite his origins, Darrow quickly masters the physical and mental skills needed to pass as a Gold, and goes on to become a leader, general, and hero. His only flaw is his literally unbelievable arrogance.
“These legions are mine. I feel something buzzing in those around me. A sort of physical fanaticism. It did not buzz in the Golds quite like this. The Golds love me because of the victory and glory I bring. These other Colors love me for something far different, something far more potent. Any other conquering Gold would have vented the ship, but I did not, because they chose me instead of the Golds who were once their masters. I gave them that choice.” Golden Son
Over the course of the series, Darrow becomes something of a legend, an image he is very conscious of maintaining. At times, his obsession with his own image begins to feel bloated and self-congratulatory. While no doubt unintentional, altogether these flaws add to a narrative that is profoundly lacking in self-awareness.
“Most call me sir or Reaper. And I want to correct them and tell them to call me Darrow, but I know the value of respect, of distance between men and leader. Because even though I’m laughing with them, even though they’re helping heal what’s been twisted inside me, they are not my friends. They are not my family. Not yet. Not until we have that luxury. For now, they are my soldiers. And they need me as much as I need them. I’m their Reaper. … I’ve never been a man of joy or a man of war, or an island in a storm. … That was what I pretended to be. I am and always have been a man who is made complete by those around him. I feel a strength growing in myself. A strength I haven’t felt in so long. It’s not only that I’m loved. It’s that they believe in me.” Morning Star
While Darrow’s accomplishments are genuinely impressive, in order to pull off these flashy exploits Brown purposefully withholds Darrow’s plans from the reader. What plays out as a clever scheme the first time quickly becomes rote as the reader is left in the dark only to be surprised by a twist that comes out of nowhere.
If you are wondering how the series got the author nominated for a Campbell award, we’ll return to: space opera. The major story of the series, a struggle for justice against an oppressive regime, is compelling and well-constructed. However unlikely its origins, this intergalactic oligarchy is is expansive and intricate, and Darrow introduces us to multiple minor characters and side-plots who add color (see what I did there!) and depth to this world. To this massive infrastructure, Brown layers in competing political interests, corruption, family drama, and betrayal. In this galaxy, alliances change seemingly at the drop of a ring, and government is a blood sport.
The writing is rich and evocative, oftentimes taking on a cinematic quality when describing the glory and rush of a fight. I imagine those with a taste for battle tactics will enjoy the many clashes of the massive space armadas much more than I did, though even I can admit that they were epic and engaging. Life is cheap in this universe, and Brown doesn’t shy away from visceral descriptions of violence and emotional hardship.
It’s in the friendships between Darrow and his fellow warriors that the story really shines. As Darrow assimilates into Gold society, he struggles to reconcile the people he has come to care about with the inhumane regime they represent. Throughout the course of the trilogy Darrow’s relationships with the Golds he trained with shift, and shift again, exploring many different aspects of friendship and loyalty. These relationships and characters ground the adventure in very human emotion, and the story dwells on the tragedy of circumstances that pits love and honor against each other.
Ultimately, Red Rising is a fun story whose execution is muddied by un-examined privilege.
Images courtesy of Random House.
Tragedy in Lady Knight
The dedication to Lady Knight reads “To the people of New York City, I always knew the great sacrifice and kindness my neighbors are capable of, but now the rest of the country knows, too.” It’s a somber beginning to a book about the tragedy of war. Obviously, it talks about the events of 9/11, and the book was published in 2002, barely a year afterwards. It’s the grimmest of Pierce’s books so far, but like the dedication, it also shows the most kindness.
Spoilers for Pierces previous work. Warnings for mentions of abuse and the murder of children.
Creator Corner: An Interview with Author Lee Blauersouth
Do you like superheroes who are queer? Found family? Complicated family dynamics? If so, meet Lee Blauersouth, author of Secondhand Origin Stories, a book with all of the above, plus so much more. I met Lee at WisCon—at Alex Acks’ book release actually—and my conversations with them were some of the most interesting and fun I’ve had in a while. So of course, I just had to have an interview to learn more about their history as a writer, their book, and their experiences as a queer, disabled writer.
Gretchen: So, are you a lifer or a recent convert when it comes to writing? What inspired you to start writing?
Lee: I think I started writing fanfiction at around age 28. After several years of that, I realized that the stories I most wanted to tell really didn’t fit with the characters and universes I was drawing from in my fanfiction, so I decided to try my hand at original writing.
G: Speaking of original writing, your novel Secondhand Origin Stories is about superheroes, what made you want to write a superhero novel?
L: Is it awful if I say spite? I’ve ingested a lot of superhero stories in various formats over the years. And there were things I kept waiting for them to do that they just weren’t doing. So eventually I got fed up and wrote the queer, disability-focused, US systems-aware, superhero family drama I’d been craving.
G: Similarly, YA gets a lot of flak from some corners of the internet for being a ‘lesser’ genre (which is bullshit), what made you want to write YA rather than for another audience?
L: I don’t think I ever decided “I’m going to write YA” so much as that I wanted to write this specific story, which was best told through the points of view of the 4 teen characters. I’m not even sure “YA” is the most accurate descriptor, given that by the end of the book half the main characters are 18 years old. I just remember my late teens and early 20s as being this really complex, exciting, stressful time of my life and that’s just such an obvious source of story material. Especially in a genre traditionally obsessed with origin stories, transformations, and identities.
G: Absolutely. So with DC and Marvel churning out many superhero films and TV shows, do you think books still have a strong place in telling stories about superheroes?
L: I wouldn’t be writing them if I didn’t! Each medium has its strengths and drawbacks, but I love superhero novels because of how easily they let you slide into the characters thoughts, emotions, bodily experiences, and point of view. Prose is just great for getting into a character’s head for a super intimate experience. Since superheroes have traditionally been mainly represented in more visual mediums, I think there’s a hunger for this sort of point of view in the genre. The AO3 tags of Marvel and DC properties would certainly seem to suggest so, anyways.
G: Tell me about writing superhero stories as a queer person. What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to face? Any unexpected blessings or silver linings?
L: I think being queer (and disabled) informs a lot of the way I think about bodies, changes to bodies, social vs private spaces, and family. I hope this gives my work a flavor and a focus that sets me apart from a lot of the mainstream superhero stories. On the other hand, it’s really hard to figure out how to work that into an elevator pitch when the expectation for superhero stories is much more action-packed.
G: How did your experience as a queer person influence the story you wanted to tell in Secondhand Origin Stories?
L: I think the biggest thing is the idea of found family. I’m one of those fortunate queer folks who’s very close to their family or origin—they’re very accepting (we’ve often commented that my wife is my mom’s favorite daughter). But even so, I have a fairly extensive queer found family, too.
I think found family narratives are a big part of why superhero team stories mean so much to so many queer folks. It feels homey and reassuring to have these characters we love living with found families. When I started writing Secondhand Origin Stories, my wife and I had just started the adoption process, so I was thinking a lot about what these found families look like when you take them out multiple generations. So, in my story you have a superhero team acting as found family, and then a 2nd generation of queer teenagers, building their own networks on top of that base.
G: You’re also a comic book artist, right? Tell us more about that!
L: I’ve been writing since my late 20s, but I’ve been drawing since I could hold a crayon. I actually have much more experience drawing than writing. I fell into comics specifically because above all, I love telling stories. Weirdly, I’ve never written a comic beyond one schmoopy autobio comic. My wife wrote all the other comics I’ve drawn!
And being able to make my own cover is pretty fun.
G: I wish I had that skill, for sure! On the topic of other projects, society likes to tell us that we can ‘have it all,’ but that can seem really hard to do these days. How do you balance your writing, drawing, work, and being a parent?
L: I just have to let every day be what it is. Some days I get to write or draw and some days I don’t. On the days I can’t, I try to at least give the story or project a little space in my brain- while I’m waiting between clients or driving or washing bottles. It helps keep my enthusiasm up so that when space does open up in my schedule, I’m more likely to feel ready to dive in.
But a lot of credit goes to my wife and my family (origin and found) for how much they help—especially with taking the baby for a while.
G: What stories/authors inspire you when you’re feeling out of steam or the creative juices aren’t flowing?
L: There are a ton of stories that have inspired my creative works over the years, but when I need to work up my own creative energy I actually tend to go to nonfiction. Shows like “Abstract” or “Chef’s Table” are nonfiction shows about creators working in different mediums than me, but it’s all about their creative journeys and what inspires them to reach for excellence. I find their pre-recorded enthusiasm contagious.
G: I love that. So what’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?
L: Right now my creative life is consumed by the sequel to Secondhand Origin Stories, which is going to be placed largely in a huge medical clinic in rural Minnesota. In my day-job life I’m a therapist who works with a lot of clients embroiled with the criminal justice system. That means I see a lot about the way the power structures of the medical world play out, and I intend to apply that to the world of superheroes.
G: That sounds exciting, inspiring, and challenging all at once. Anything else you want to share with us before we go?
The audiobook version of Secondhand Origin Stories will be coming soon! Follow me on Twitter for more updates and to see my drowning my sequel-writing pain in large mugs of tea: https://twitter.com/AmmoniteInk
G: Thanks again for chatting, Lee!
L: You’re welcome!
Secondhand Origin Stories is available for purchase online and in retail stores. Make sure you check out Lee’s website for more information and stay tuned for my review of Secondhand Origin Stories coming later this month!
Images Courtesy of Lee Blauersouth
The Last Debate and the Ending of an Age
“The Last Debate” is more like a “last discussion,” a “last planning meeting,” or perhaps a “last Gandalf monologue with which everyone is quickly on board.” This isn’t a criticism. A debate at this point would feel out of place. Our heroes have just been granted a miracle, an impossible reprieve. But what can you do next? What to do when you’ve been given a miracle, you’ve survived, but you simply immediately require a bigger one?
The whole chapter is tinged with a sense of giddiness, fear, hope, and confusion. People like Legolas look to a future beyond the war, but one that is different, uncertain, even frightening. Cut off from what had come before. Éomer’s eucatastrophe is built on the back of Gimli’s week of horror, a time he came barely bring himself to recall. And when the captains gather together to plan a course for what’s to come, they quickly agree that the most hopeful path is virtually indistinguishable from self-annihilation.
The Last Debate
“Hardly has our strength sufficed to beat off the first great assault,” Gandalf begins at the meeting of the captains. “The next will be greater.” It might come across as a narratively jarring moment for those uninitiated to Tolkien’s pacing. We’ve shifted quickly from a moment of narrative and emotional climax to one where… our heroes aren’t even entirely the protagonists anymore. Of course, they still are in a certain sense. But it’s still an interesting and rather bold move on Tolkien’s part to follow up such a vibrant, effective set piece as Pelennor Fields with its stars scrambling to fill a supporting role to quieter characters who have been off screen for so long.
From a thematic point of view, of course, this is essential. Tolkien’s physical battles, as important as they may be, are always secondary, always a corollary to something more key. We saw this last chapter when Aragorn gained renown in Minas Tirith for his healing powers rather than his ghost brigade, which he didn’t even both to bring. It would make little sense to have this strand of narrative culminate in a big battle before shifting over to Frodo and Sam, implying an equivalence in their missions despite the fact that they are playing dramatically different roles.
It’s also thematically on point in its skewering of Sauron’s lack of imagination. Sauron has always struck me as the sort to be quite proud of himself for being able to see the weaknesses in others. He probably thinks he’s a goddamn scholar of the human (elven/dwarven/you get it) condition because of his ability to see how others could fail. How intelligent! How edgy. Of course, Sauron’s certainty in himself is his own undoing (Aragorn’s certainty, hard-earned and open-minded, sounds nicely as its counterpoint). Non-Saurons are simply Lesser-Saurons: they would hide without the Ring or fight rashly with It. Playing into this isn’t quite prudence, as Gandalf notes. But it’s a solid play predicated on Sauron’s weakness and their own tentative, tottering strength.
Seen and Unseen
Now that we’ve gotten our spaghetti plate of plot threads all (relatively) back together, I’d be curious to see what everyone thinks about Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli’s adventure happening almost entirely off screen. Much like the Ents’ assault on Isengard, I do think that it loses a bit from being told in retrospect.
We hear Legolas and Gimli describe the moments they saw Aragorn really come into his own as an open leader of large numbers of people (and ghosts) rather than see it happen ourselves. We don’t see Legolas and Gimli for a very long time! And, from what snippets Tolkien does give us, we missed some very cool and atmospheric ghostiness. I was especially a fan of Gimli, ever the wordsmith, describing the army right before Aragorn released them. “The Shadow Host withdrew to the shore. There they stood silent, hardly to be seen, save for a red gleam in their eyes that caught the glare of the ships that were burning.”
But in the end I think it was a good choice to keep the focus away from Aragorn, and instead give us Eomer’s moment on the Pelennor. It’s a more thematically important moment than the taking of the fleet at Pelagir, despite the cool, ghostly atmosphere of the latter. I do sometimes wonder, though, at what story would have emerged had the choice been reversed.
Legolas, Gimli, and Future Might-Have-Beens
While there’s good stuff all over, I do have to say that my favorite part of the chapter, by a long shot, is simply Merry, Pippin, Legolas, and Gimli hanging out by the Houses of Healing. They’re among the funniest characters in The Lord of the Rings and they are very well-paired here. Merry and Pippin so often bring out the best and most honest in others, and the tension between Legolas’s and Gimli’s wildly disparate approaches to the world creates a nice sense of dynamism and tension. Tolkien delightfully plays it up almost to the point of parody as they enter Minas Tirith: “Legolas was fair of face beyond the measure of Men, and he sang an elven-song in a clear voice as he walked in the morning; but Gimli stalked beside him, stroking his beard and staring about him.”
Beyond that, though, their conversation also strikes a tenor that new in this section of The Lord of the Rings. Legolas and Gimli immediately begin discussing how, after the war, they could call on some good dwarven stonewrights to fix up shoddy Minas Tirith masonry and some trusty elves to plant some flowers and make the place less drab and lifeless. There’s a sense of hope, of the future, of time expanding outward and the world improving from what it currently is. But there’s also the sense of that hope being suddenly and somewhat truncated.
“It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in the Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”
“Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,” said Legolas. “And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.”
“And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,” said the Dwarf.
“To that the Elves know not the answer,” said Legolas.
It’s clever that the first look at the future, of a post-Sauron world, comes from an elf, a dwarf, and two hobbits sitting around the citadel of Men that is likely to be the focal point of the future. It’s such an ambiguous future: obviously better than the immediate present, but still heavy with the sense of loss. The world will be Different. That’s very sad in a lot of ways, and a lot of people over the rest of the story are gonna be sad about it. But it’s not—or not necessarily—bad. This becomes even clearer when Legolas sees some seagulls, the Middle-earth brand of wildlife doomed to launch mid-life-crises for elves whose lives have no mid.
“Look!” he cried. “Gulls! They are flying far inland. A wonder they are to me and a trouble in my heart. Never in all my life had I met them, until we came to Pelagir, and there I heard them crying in the air as we rode to the battle of the ships. Then I stood still, forgetting war in Middle-earth; for their wailing voices spoke to me of the Sea. The Sea! Alas! I have not yet beheld it. But deep in the hearts of all my kindred lies the sea-longing, which it is perilous to stir. Alas! for the gulls. No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm.”
I’ve always liked that Tolkien’s “dying world” (hmm) atmosphere is predicated not on death but on movement. The elves aren’t… disappearing, or dying, or Losing Their Magic. They are simply going somewhere else, to a new place. That is super sad in a lot of ways! I am a historian and I cry into my tea every morning that I can’t chill with medieval scholars in Timbuktu or scratch crass graffiti into Pompeiian walls with Roman bros or learn to paint pretty landscapes in Song China. Gimli gets it.
“Say not so!” said Gimli. “There are countless things still to see in Middle-earth, and great works to do. But if all the fair folk take to the Havens, it would be a duller world for those who are doomed to stay.”
But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Tolkien’s world is not a world of consistent linear decline. Things don’t start beautiful and get bad. I mean—they get bad a lot if you read The Silmarillion, but it is very hard to be kind in a world with so much beautiful jewelry up for grabs. But in the large scheme of things, for Tolkien, change is sad but fundamentally neutral: as in all things, it depends on the choices that you make. There’s ample space made for sadness and loss, but at its core I think it’s a rather optimistic way to view the world.
In any case, more on this later. I am very interested in Tolkien’s sense of nostalgia. But I think I’m going to save any more thoughts for a later chapter (or just a later essay in general). It’s more complicated and optimistic than it’s often painted to be, at any rate.
- “Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” I didn’t quite fit this in anywhere above, but it’s a nice quote, kind and comforting. Except when you think of it for too long and realize that we’ve messed things up enough now that the weather, uh, is kind of ours to rule now only in the sense that we’ve made it so bad and its just always a hundred degrees now and oh my god WHAT HAVE WE—
- It was interesting to me that Denethor appeared so frequently in Gandalf’s sales pitch at the meeting of the captains. This works to re-emphasize the works thematic beats. But I also do wonder if it’s meant to indicate that Denethor is, simply put, still very much on Gandalf’s mind. Gandalf is very good at talking people away from despair, presenting them the choice and allowing them to make the hopeful one. Denethor not only rejected Gandalf’s philosophy, he did so bluntly and brutally. We never delve all that far into the deeper folds of Gandalf’s psyche, but I do wonder if it did a bit of a number on him.
- Speaking of Denethor—it continues to be a fun thought experiment to imagine how much more difficult the dude would have made everything for the last two chapters. You want a last debate? Denethor would have given you a last debate.
- I thought that Legolas’s comment about Tolkien at Pelagir to be intriguing: “In that hour I looked on Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his will, had he taken the Ring to himself. Not for naught does Mordor fear him. But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron; for is he not of the children of Lúthien?” It’s another nice parallel / contrast between Aragorn and Sauron.
- Imrahil has always felt like an odd character to me. He feels very… illustrious, like a high medieval courtly knight in a story where those are in short supply. So when he calls Aragorn his liege lord and says that “his wish is to me a command” like some kind of Disney Prince, I was a half-way through a powerful, extended eye roll. But then my boy Imrahil steps in to be the voice of reason and reminds everyone that some heed should be given to prudence that that it’d be a shame to survive their maniac run at the Black Gate only to turn around and find the whole country burned and ravaged. Sorry, Imrahil, you’re good. Do your thing.
- I’m not sure it’s intentional or meaningful, but I was struck by the fact that when Gimli and Legolas are discussing how they can spiff up Minas Tirith, Gimli phrases it as “when” Aragorn comes into his own. Legolas phrases it as “if.”
- Prose Prize: For a while they walked and talked, rejoicing for a brief space in the peace and rest under the morning high up in the windy circles of the City. Then when Merry became weary, they wen and sat upon the wall with the greensward of the Houses of Healing behind them; and away southward before them was the Anduin glittering in the sun, as it flowed away, out of the sight of even Legolas. In the context of this chapter’s hope and uncertainty this has that that sense of a kind of lovely moment frozen in time before everything changes. You know the sort—if this made it into the film version it would have been shot during the golden hour.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: Frodo and Sam walk, and keep walking. My poor little dudes.
Art Credits: The film still is from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. All other images, in order of appearance, are courtesy of Lorenzo Daniele, Ted Nasmith, aegeri, and, introducing, the “Beleriand” article on The One Wiki to Rule them All.
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