I hate how my body shivers at the idea of glory. There’s something deep in man that hungers for this. But I think it weakness, not strength, to abandoI hate how my body shivers at the idea of glory. There’s something deep in man that hungers for this. But I think it weakness, not strength, to abandon decency for that strange darker spirit.
So two years have passed, and we open upon Always Perfect Darrow failing at something and causing the metaphorical space shit to hit the fan. WHAT A DELIGHT. I don’t consider that a spoiler, I consider it a neon sign incentive beckoning you to the glory that is Golden Son, because that’s only the beginning. Y’all, Darrow is a great leader, he’s a great orator, I’m not trying to hide his bushel under a basket, but as a reader when I don’t worry about my protagonist’s success or well-being, then we have a problem. I worry about Frodo Baggins, because he is a smol hobbit who is brave and pure but inexperienced and in a dark world. I am concerned for Harry Potter, because he is a slacker who needs to copy Hermione’s homework, but tomorrow he might need to fight the most powerful wizard of all time. I root for Katniss Everdeen, because she never believed her own Mockingjay hype and all she ever wanted was to be an introvert in the woods with her family.
So when you have Darrow—he of the perfect planning and hidden cards up his sleeve and never breaking a sweat—it’s hard to become invested, it’s hard to care. You know all of his plans will eventually work, you know everyone will eventually realize how brilliant he is. In fact, you will even hear Darrow describe himself TO HIMSELF as being this revolutionary, cosmic, world-shaking titan of change. My eyes will detach if they roll back any further.
I didn’t know if I could survive another whole novel of that (as much as I enjoyed most everything else about Red Rising). So to say I was pleasantly surprised when Darrow epically failed at something one chapter into Golden Son would be an understatement. Reader, I felt hope! Darrow just may be human after all! I may need to start worrying! I might become…invested!!!
But ok, does Brown eventually resort to his old tricks and take advantage of the two year time jump to cheat a little by having Darrow hold back key information AGAIN from the reader in order to shock us later (a pet peeve of mine)? Yes, but I’ll admit it’s a great scene, a BANANAS scene. And from that scene on the book takes a sharp turn to Crazy Town (like the Passage scene in book 1), and things only get better.
Not only does Darrow continue to improve as a character, but certain themes and plotlines from Red Rising that I wasn’t that fond of (vague to avoid spoilers) are revisited/expanded, and provide the reader with more meat to chew on. I appreciated that. “Remember that character who did this awful thing that at the time we kind of brushed under the rug? They’re actually still awful and it’s a pretty big deal! Realism!” Pretty much all of my non-Darrow criticisms from Red Rising are addressed (which is no small feat as I am the queen of Cynicism).
Praises: we have more Sevro! We have sweet friendship! We have sassy villains! There's duels, double crossing, betrayals. There's people firing themselves into space onto other ships or even shooting themselves onto planets. Cranky old war vets! Family and friend reunions! Sadistic torture! Complicated love lives! SUPER CUTE LOYALTY! Death & despair & sadness :(
And if none of the above convinces you to keep at it with this series, just know that you’ll miss out on reading about my main man….Ragnar. The coolest, scariest, sweetest, Grootiest Viking prince my heart will ever know.
Oh, and the cliff hanger to this book is insane.
Wrapping up this review by saying thank you to Pierce Brown. Brown, you listened. You heard the criticisms of Red Rising and you learned, you grew, and you wrote a stellar sequel. I love your writing, I love your brain…onward & upward, my friend. Onward & upward.
How cruel a life, that the sight of my dead wife means hope.
“I will die. You will die. We will all die and the universe will carry on without care. All that we have is that shout into the wind - how we live. How we go. And how we stand before we fall.”
That's what Society does--spread the blame so there is no villain, so it's futile to even begin to find a villain, to find justice. It's just machinery. Processes.
And what is the bloodydamn point of surviving in this cold world if I run from the only warmth it has to offer?
Modern war is fearing the air, the shadows, fearing the silence. Death will come and I won't even see it....more
“Martyrs, you see, are like bees. Their only power comes in death. How many of you would sacrifice yourself not to kill, but merely hurt your enemy?” “Martyrs, you see, are like bees. Their only power comes in death. How many of you would sacrifice yourself not to kill, but merely hurt your enemy?”
Synopsis: Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class. Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity's overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society's ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies... even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.
I am going to blow your mind: this novel, this series, is NOT Young Adult. “But wait, Jessica”, you might say. “Isn’t this about an underdog teenager who must overthrow his oppressive dystopian regime by tearing it down from within? Isn’t that the plot of every YA book since 2008?”
Gentle reader, I was of the same disbelieving mind when I started this novel. Knowing only the general buzz, the briefest description of the plot, and the rumors of Gary-Stu qualities in the protagonist, I began my reading.
For the first several chapters I was only further convinced that this novel was indeed YA and my well-meaning friends perhaps read a different book. Pity. Darrow, the protagonist, was most definitely a Gary-Stu, everything he did was perfect, his confidence was unwavering, his “wife” (I put this in quotation marks because they are 16??) was quickly fridged. He is special, he is chosen, he is clearly wish-fulfilment. But then Gary, I mean Darrow, enters the mysterious “Institute”, and I prepared myself for Harry Potter-style hijinks and competitions and a slow-burn of action and possibly a Triwizard/scifi Cup to win by the end of the year. I expected a love triangle. BUT THEN ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE AND LITERALLY ALL OF MY EXPECTATIONS WERE THROWN OUT THE WINDOW AND TURNED TO ASH AND THROWN INTO A BUCKET OF TEARS FOR GOOD MEASURE. AND THAT TRIWIZARD CUP? OH YEAH IT’S THERE, IT’S JUST MADE FROM THE BONES OF THE FALLEN.
I kid, I kid. Sort of. This is not Game of Thrones. There is not violence for the sake of violence, and the underlying theme of the novel is not that everything and everyone is terrible and hope is an illusion. But the themes in this series are dark, and the characters do very despicable things. There is loss and moral depravity and animalistic behavior. The author doesn’t pull any punches. When a character threatens to cut the throat of another character, she follows through on that threat without a moment’s hesitation. When you begin your competition with every single participant being a murderer, you can expect a certain amount of very terrible things to happen.
So, yeah, I wish I had known before I started reading that this novel is adult fiction and that it clearly takes inspiration from some of my favorite novels (like Lord of the Flies, Clockwork Orange and Fahrenheit 451) and some of the great scifi short stories that I was introduced to in college. I would have read this years ago if I had known. The publisher’s blurb did this book dirty. (However, even reading the beginning of Red Rising really can put a person off from continuing. It is misleading, unfortunately. It’s too neat. Too predictable. It’s too similar to everything we have read before.)
Before I get in to what I didn’t like, let me mention a few things I appreciated.
This novel is not only honest in its display of the broken (and often dark) human condition, the violence of survival, and the lengths we are willing to go for our own selfish purposes. But it is also realistic at a biological level as well. The opening of the book describes how the “Helldivers” have to pee in their “frysuits” (get ready for a lot of new slang and terminology) since they aren’t allowed/able to take them off to use the restroom throughout the day. Later, a character is described as pissing involuntarily when electrocuted. By this point I was astutely noting the above average mentions of piss in the novel. Darrow then goes through an extremely detailed surgical process to transform his body and it’s written in lovingly gory detail. Once the horror begins at the Institute, perfect pores become clogged when hygiene goes to crap and pimples develop. Faces stay dirty, hair grows matted, bodies smell, breath smells, clothes and fur cloaks are often described by their stench. The reality of the human body (even biologically evolved, “perfect” bodies) is constantly on display, and I appreciated it. Who knew I wanted more piss in my novels? If you’re an author who preaches “realism”, then there bloodydamn better be piss.
And say what you want about Darrow as a character (don’t worry, I will later), but I enjoyed that he had a very distinct narrative voice. Clipped. Brutal. Filled with a quiet rage. None of this Maze Runner crap. None of this bland, prosaic speech that is the literary equivalent of wet cardboard. Of white bread. Of paint drying. Let your teen boys have an emotional complexity that is befitting them as people. Authors don’t often do this. They think for some reason boy readers will not know what to do if a male protagonist uses a poetic turn of phrase, a description of beauty, a baring of their soul. Darrow weeps. He questions his humanity, his character, his beliefs, his purpose. I want to see him go there more, but for now it’s enough.
And, I will say, the slang and world-building of highLingo and midLingo and lowLingo definitely grow on you. Took me awhile to realize “bloodydamn” isn’t an actual swear word people say now. Sounds like one. Gory. Prime. Students speak like philosophers. Like war generals and great orators.
“We come as princes and this school is supposed to teach us to become beasts. But you came a beast.”
This is a believable evolution the English language will take.
“Promises are just chains," she rasps. "Both are meant for breaking.”
I see reviewers complaining that “teenagers don’t speak like this! who speaks like this?”, and the answer is pretty obvious. People in the future. Advanced, genius, genetically altered cream of the crop people. Boys and girls grown to men and women overnight.
On to The Bad:
It is true what they say about Darrow, to a certain extent. He masters almost everything the first time he attempts it. His plans never fail. He gains followers with hardly any effort. He is brilliant. He believes his own hype. He has an unwavering self-confidence that is almost spiritual. He is the first to do this, the only one to succeed at that. And if I have to hear about his perfect, dexterous, abnormally strong Helldiver hands one more time I may scream (someone with an eBook please tally up how many mentions there are).
“I am the spark that will set the worlds afire. I am the hammer that cracks the chains.”* *actual thing Darrow thinks about himself
“Jessica!”, you cry again, “he sounds awful!”
Listen, I don’t know how it happened, but by the end of the novel he had actually won me over. He’s definitely a putz. His head is the size of one of Hagrid’s pumpkins. But at least he isn’t perfect AND humble AND sanctimonious. None of this "Who ME?? I did that?? I'm special???" crap. Instead, his thought process is basically this: “I am the greatest. I am better than all of these garbage Golds, but I am also a monster and pretty much just as bad as them. I hate everything. Oh no, I’m catching feelings!! I’m going to destroy all of these people and their world, but I may feel a little bad about it.” He’s interesting.
Being careful not to spoil, and to hopefully deter potential readers from thinking this a Game of Thrones rip off devoid of hope and moral growth: there came a point in the novel where I was sure that thematically the novel was going to continue to morally decay and we would see just how deeply mankind can fall into darkness in their quest to rule and triumph. And not only did that not happen, but Darrow had a major character shift and some amazing things happened. (view spoiler)[ The use of Rape as Plot Device was actually handled in one of the more respectful and responsible ways I have seen done so in literature. The victim of the sexual abuse is given a voice. In fact, it is the catalyst to major narrative change. Growth, maturity, morality: all are elevated and the novel became something more. (hide spoiler)]
Something that can definitely improve though? The random sexism. Male AND female characters insult one another by calling each other “girls”. This makes no sense as some of the most brutal and frightening characters are female. This is a society of physically and intellectually advanced humans. It seemed completely out of place. There are multiple instances of lines like this:
“My name is Darrow, leader of House Mars. I’m here to meet with your Primus, if you have one. If you don’t, your leader will suffice. And if you don’t have one of those either, take me to whoever has the biggest balls.”
Like, huh? Half the Primus leaders are female. They are just as brutal as the guys and command just as much respect. Mustang, one of the most prominent female characters insults other characters as being “girls”, references her own “balls”, and complains that she “hates those girls” who are ‘damsels in distress’. Feminism and Strong Female Characters: you’re doing it wrong. In this world, it would make more sense to insult others by calling them “child” or a lower Color.
And my last minor complaint: there are 5,000 characters and it’s hard to keep them all straight. Took me forever to realize Pax and Dax were not the same person. Not to mention there are like 12 houses and we then need to keep in mind what House each character comes from. Exhausting.
To wrap up: this book completely won me over by the end. Intriguing, complex, intelligent action and plot development. Thrilling, horrifying. I have talked to friends who are further in the series and they assure me all my complaints are improved upon in the sequels. This book is definitely worth reading, and I have high hopes for the sequels. This world is gorydamn fun. ...more
This entire book felt like set up & the climax felt like it should be the middle. Annoying that it ends with so many cliffhangers (unlike the firsThis entire book felt like set up & the climax felt like it should be the middle. Annoying that it ends with so many cliffhangers (unlike the first book). So I guess the next sequel should be better?
AND WHY DID IT HAVE TO HAVE A LOVE TRIANGLE...more
Ness deserves a longer review from me since I do love him so, but I am too lazy to type one out right now on my phone.
But in short: his beautiful writNess deserves a longer review from me since I do love him so, but I am too lazy to type one out right now on my phone.
But in short: his beautiful writing hooked me from page one; THIS is how you write YA; this is how you write male teenage protagonists (basically like complex human beings I can empathize with); this is how you write supporting characters; but also how dare you end a novel like a short story, Ness; how dare you.
I don't know why it's so rare that I love the narrative voice of a teenage boy protagonist. Well, I know why: it's because I usually find them dry, prI don't know why it's so rare that I love the narrative voice of a teenage boy protagonist. Well, I know why: it's because I usually find them dry, prosaic, and colorless. What I mean is that I'm not sure why this is nearly always the case in YA books, Variant included. What's up, male authors? Why do you make your guys so one-dimensional? So perfunctory? Don't be afraid to give them some real heart to go with that quick-thinking, unflappable "personality" they always seem to have. They can describe a girl as something other than "pretty", they can get scared sometimes, they can be wrong. Shake it up, even, make them Crabapple Mcnasties who we all hate to love. Just make me feel something for them.
Authors, if you're feeling rusty on your characterization, I suggest reading the Chaos Walking trilogy--Todd falls out of the book and into whatever room you're reading in and you sort of fall in love with him, regardless of your gender. Or maybe the Tomorrow, When the War Began series? That's an example of a male author writing a female protagonist so painfully real I wonder whose journal he stole, and can I please meet her so we can be besties.
Variant's plot was unique, and I did like the ending. I would not be opposed to reading the sequel. Much like Maze Runner (Dashner's quote on the cover should have been a tip-off), I feel the book only began to get interesting towards the very end (and therefore the sequel has potential), but unlike Maze Runner, Well's book didn't piss me off, only disappoint me slightly. A good thing. I hold out genuine hope for the sequel.
(This book was a free giveaway ARC in return for an honest review.)...more
Flat writing and characters, but makes up for it in a FUN plot. This book suffers from info-dump problems and an insert male 1st person narrator withFlat writing and characters, but makes up for it in a FUN plot. This book suffers from info-dump problems and an insert male 1st person narrator with very little depth, but there is just something undeniably entertaining about the idea of living out a videogame quest in a virtual reality where the more 80s trivia you know the cooler you are, and the entire universe is a geek's dream full of Star Wars planets, cyberpunk, the entire Whedonverse, and any other nerdy thing you can imagine.
This is a book I imagine making an even better movie. Evil corporations, riddles and quests, more 80s references & namedropping than you could think possible, epic battles, super cool tech, hacking, etc.
Very quick read & I would recommend to any scifi fan who also loves their 80s nostalgia (so, every scifi fan?)....more