Book Review: Dark Age
The following is a review of Dark Age, the fifth book in the Red Rising Saga. This review contains mild spoilers, but is intended for all readers. We will post a full spoiler discussion during the Great Red Rising Re-Read, which will commence at a later date in preparation for Book 6. Cover art courtesy of Howler Life.
Ride, Ride to Ruin
Let’s just get this out of the way upfront: Dark Age - the fifth entry of the New York Times bestselling Red Rising Saga - is the Les Miserables of science fiction. With this latest entry, author Pierce Brown evolves his flagship series once and for all from a young adult story of revolution into a deeply mature science fantasy that mercilessly examines the reality of war, and the consequences of our most well-intentioned mistakes. Compelling, brutal, superbly written and populated as ever with some of the best characters this side of Westeros, Dark Age is the best science fantasy I have read since I first encountered Dan Simmons’ Hyperion in 2013. It also marks an irrevocable change to the DNA of the Red Rising saga, and whether that change is good or catastrophic will depend entirely on who you ask.
But before we get to that, let’s focus on the book. To describe Dark Age as an epic almost cheapens the truth of the matter. At its best, Dark Age feels almost mythological in its scope. For reference: Brown’s cast of characters going into this book (as dutifully presented in his Dramatis Personae) includes nearly 70 characters. Each of these characters is colorful, unique, and memorable - and somehow, they are all woven into a coherent narrative.
And what a narrative it is. After opening with a 150-page battle as told from two perspectives, Dark Age only ever gets faster, meaner, and darker. This one battle - known in the book as the Battle of the Ladon - commences with a nuclear holocaust. Being a science fiction, Dark Age presents this holocaust through a lens so intimate it teeters on nauseating. After the battle is over, we witness firsthand the reality of what war does to a city, reading nightmarish scenes straight out of historic battles such as Dunkirk, Thermopylae, and the battle of the Bulge.
None of this is by accident, of course. As brilliant, crafty, and precocious as ever, author Pierce Brown ransacks the shelves of history, literature, poetry and politics to thread the tapestry of his narrative with allusions, clues, and easter eggs. Some of these winks to the audience are heady: at one point, a character’s inner monologue on liberty echoes the treatises of Robespierre; at another point, a character’s true nature is foreshadowed by their Athenian namesake. Others take the form of easter eggs rooted in pop culture, such as nods to intergalactic graphic novel series Saga, and legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python. All of this, and more, Brown presents in his usual kinetic prose that manages to be somehow simultaneously readable and pyrotechnic. It is, in a word, a marvel.
State of the Saga
Simply put, however, all of this violence, darkness, and brutality comes at a cost. I can point at a specific moment, late in the novel, where Dark Age lost a lot of its readers. When I read this sequence for the first time (and for those of you who have finished the book, I’m referring to the part with the tree) I had to put the book down and take a break for the evening, despite the fact that I’d only read for an hour - and still had two more hours available to me.
For the uninitiated, that’s like setting down a Harry Potter book when you’ve still got two more hours to read it. For a moment, I was genuinely frustrated with the author - and not in a shallow, “you hurt my favorite character, I’m mad at you” kind of way, but rather because it felt like he’d blundered in a book where he’d hit nothing but net, and the narrative was cheapened because of it. I slept on it, and finished the book, ultimately having a change of heart.
Yet others, I’m sad to see, never had that change of heart - and the book certainly didn’t get kinder after that point. The chief complaints I’ve heard from the book’s detractors circle around the words “excess,” “gratuitous,” and “cheap”. One reviewer went so far as to call the book’s violence masturbatory. Another reader had this to say (represented here with his permission):
Bad guys [in this book] have cheat codes . . . This is my least favorite book. The least compelling. The lamest. The worst. I hope [Pierce] can save it all with the next one. If he’d written four of these before this, no one would read them.
What’s worse is, Reader B was not rooting for Dark Age to fail. He wanted to love Dark Age - and not only did he not love it, he felt like the Saga was losing its way because of it. Were he the only person to voice such emotions, I would not have brought it up. Having read through the Red Rising subreddits and Goodreads review boards, however, I’m noticing a trend. Most people either loved this book (like I did) or they hated it. I haven’t really seen many people who were indifferent to it, which was a problem that plagued Iron Gold. Regardless of what I feel about Dark Age’s parade of villains and violence - and we’ll get back to my thoughts again in a minute - this dichotomy of reactions is bad for the health of the series.
Romans, Lend Me Your Ears
I remember quitting A Song of Ice and Fire in 2015 because it felt like author George Martin had written himself into a corner, and trapped thusly by the Gordian knot of his own narrative, chose to torture characters because he had nothing better to do. (I would return to Westeros years later, but it took a while.)
I don’t think this is the case with the Red Rising Saga. The suffering we endure here was thoroughly foreshadowed as far back as Morning Star (hell, maybe even Golden Son), and effectively builds the groundwork for a firecracker of a finale. Characters behave exactly as expected, and the stakes are never too low. In short: everything is going exactly as it should. So what gives?
My diagnosis of the issue is that rather than writing one cohesive saga, Pierce Brown has written two very different trilogies. Just because you love one, doesn’t mean you’ll like the other. I feel lucky to be a fan of both.
With Dark Age, Red Rising becomes the saga I always wanted it to be. From what I’ve gathered about Brown - by reading his posts and listening to interviews with him - I think it’s safe to say that with Dark Age he finally got to tell the story he’s always wanted to tell. It’s a shame, therefore, that it’s not the kind of story some of his most devoted fans wanted to hear.
Speaking on behalf of those who survived Dark Age (a book so lethal it apparently murdered a third of its audience) - I couldn’t be happier with this book, and with what Brown is trying to build. I liked Iron Gold very much, but Dark Age reminded me what a book can be at its finest: absolute in its vision; stunning in its narrative twists and turns; soul-shaking in its violence; and deeply cathartic in its oh-so-rare instances of hope. Dark Age is the first stroke of a master coming at last into the fullest expression of his craft. I could not be prouder, or more inspired. To author Pierce Brown, thank you. I look forward to Book 6 with enormous excitement. Until then:
A legendary contribution to the science fantasy canon that will prove controversial.