The best thing Luke Skywalker had going for him in the original trilogy was that he never had to worry about who was going to feed the war orphans left behind by the rebellion, or rebuild trashed moisture farms. No, if you're Luke, all you gotta do is show up every once in a while, blow up a Death Star or have a lightsaber duel with your weird dad. He got to be the clean and bright hero, never having to face the ugly realities of upsetting a massive bureaucracy, destroying vital infrastructure and all the other petty inconveniences that come with a war.
But Darrow, the hero of Pierce Brown's Red Rising trilogy doesn't get that hall pass. No, he sees all of it. And that's impressive. Keeping together all the details of a massive, system-wide war with dozens of competing factions isn't impossible, it's just very, very hard. And Brown's commitment to showing it all is both one of the beautiful strengths and most annoying failures of the third and final book in the series, Morning Star.
It starts badly by almost any measure: Betrayed at the end of the last book, Golden Son,and with all his victories turned to ash, Darrow begins Morning Star imprisoned. He's been beaten, tortured, revealed as an impostor in his high-caste world and then thrown into solitary, in a hole so small that he can do nothing but curl into a ball, talk to himself and weep.
Conveniently, most of what he talks about are the events of the past two books — which, as a writer, is precisely why you throw your main man into solitary in the first place. Roger Zelazny did it right in the middle of the first half of his Amber decalogy (the only half that matters), blinding his narrator and throwing him into a cell where he could think back on all that had led him to this sorry state. But while Zelazny somehow made that prison cell one of the best parts of the series, Brown ... does not. Darrow is broken. He lies there like a lump feeling sorry for himself, remembering the good ol' days and everyone who done him wrong. And while he might think his end has finally come, we, as readers, know that rescue must be on its way.
You know, eventually.
And, eventually, it does come. There's a prison break, a rescue, joyous reunions. But Morning Star is still suffering from a bit of sequel-itis at this point, in that it sometimes seems like every other sentence is Darrow recalling some past character that we need to get caught up with, all of which end up reading like "... and then I saw Cleetus the Mighty, who wore the Trousers of Calamity when last we battled on the slopes of Mt. Exposition."
And really? I'm just waiting for the Howlers to come back. For the snaggle-toothed and scarred teenager, Sevro au Barca (Darrow's best friend, leader of the rebellion, a high-caste Gold gone bad) and his personal army of insane, drunken malcontents to roar back onto the page with their rocket boots and blow stuff up.
It is Sevro (more than Darrow, more than anyone) that is Pierce Brown's true muse; the gasoline on his writer fire. And the Howlers are like nerdy frat boys with access to automatic weapons and high explosives. They are the counterweight (both literal and figurative) to all the aforementioned busywork of managing a rebellion. Darrow was the one who was always good at bringing people together. And in his absence, Sevro and the Howlers have been waging the war the only way they know how: By killing pretty much everything they see, as loudly and dramatically as possible.
So after 90-some pages of moping and angst. what follows are several hundred pages of action with occasional inspirational speeches thrown in. Yes, there is horror. Yes, there is want and tragedy. Brown doesn't short the scope or repercussions of war on a massive scale. But there is also satisfying revenge and daring, skin-of-their-teeth escapes. And there is no one writing today who does shameless, Michael Bay-style action set pieces the way Brown does. The battle scenes are kinetic, bloody, breathless, crazy. Everything is on fire all the time.
As to whether or not Brown sticks his landing? That's depends on whether you've fallen for Darrow the warrior or Darrow the messiah. "I am and always have been a man who is made complete by the people around him," Darrow says (awkwardly) of himself early on in Morning Star — he's neither completely a man of war or a man of joy. And while Brown has spent three books detailing destruction, he, too, is a creature of strange balance. A writer who gets the "opera" part of space opera. Who doesn't hesitate to murder his way through a thousand and a half pages. But who also understands when rewards are due.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor ofPhiladelphiamagazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.