The Ink Pot

The Red Rising Trilogy: how good is it, really?

The Red Rising trilogy. Incomparable in terms of pacing and intensity, Pierce Brown started out writing a gorier, male-oriented version of The Hunger Games, and then spun it into something more akin to a space opera. A brutal tale of twists and turns set at a break-neck pace, each of the first three books of this series—Red Rising, Golden Son, and Morning Light—is more shocking than the last, with brash, unapologetic characters that, while not very realistic, still leap off the page.

And yet, after finishing my second read-through of this first trilogy in anticipation of continuing the series, I find myself asking: is Red Rising actually well-written? Or is it just extremely entertaining?

Now I realize this probably comes across as a bit facetious. If I’ve read it twice, and it’s one of the most well-known and critically acclaimed sci-fi series of the last decade, then Pierce Brown obviously knows what he’s doing. There’s a distinct style to this series. It’s hyperbolic and melodramatic. It indulges (for better or worse) the “male fantasy” trope. The worldbuilding is communicated well. There are distinct themes of the corruption of power, the nature of rebellion, the terror of oppression. Like any good sci-fi, Brown engages with social and political commentary, reimagining and reshaping what imperialism, caste systems, and dictatorships might look like thousands of years from now.

Beyond that: my goodness, when these books are good, they are so good. I’ve never been so consistently shocked at what’s going on in a story. The reveals and betrayals are jaw-dropping. There’s one chapter in particular that’s easily as dramatic as Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding. And you can’t help but rooting for Darrow, the story’s main character, in his arc from beaten-down slave to all-conquering, morally grey hero. Brown also peppers the story with tropey-but-enjoyable side-characters too: the chaotic sidekick, the evil overlord, the badass warrior-woman, the charming rogue.

But despite these obvious pros, this first trilogy has definite drawbacks, something that I think was made more evident to me after reading these three books for a second time, when the shock of the unknown plot twists was absent.

Its pacing and prose can make it feel rushed. The narrative often turns on a dime, entire plotlines shifting in new directions based on one single sentence. Brown also employs a very interesting technique: major events or character growth repeatedly occur “off-screen”; that is, either between books, or even between chapters, without any signposting or buildup. Imagine if in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker was never trained by Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode IV. Imagine if in the first movie and a half, he carries around his lightsaber with no indication that he’s ever even attempted to use it. Then imagine if in Empire Strikes Back, Luke suddenly pulls out his lightsaber in Cloud City during his fight with Vader and is suddenly a master. That’s what happens in this series, but over and over again.

On top of that, I think Brown often strikes the wrong balance between employing tropes intentionally and using them for no reason. The “male fantasy” aspect of this series is a good example. You know how Quentin Tarantino is criticized for unnecessarily putting the n-word in his movies, and finding ways for white actors to say it as often as possible? I think Pierce Brown does that, except with misogynistic terms and jokes. And the result, unfortunately, is that there are lots of cringeworthy scenes where male characters are domineering, and female characters sort of just… have no outlet. There’s an absence of empowerment and complexity to many of the women in this trilogy. I’ll be particularly curious to see how this is handled in the subsequent books.

For these last few reasons, I think to my question at the start of this post, I would characterize the Red Rising trilogy as more entertaining than well-written. This series is fairly polarizing, a sort of “either you love it or you hate it” type deal. But if you’re looking for an in-your-face, throw-the-book-across-the-room story with classic sci-fi grounding and a really intriguing, well-realized worldbuilding, really look no further than Pierce Brown. He deserves his flowers. But I think he deserves critique, too.