To my pleasant surprise, Golden Sun manages to be better than the first.
After the well-crafted but ultimately trope-heavy YA-fest that was Red Rising, Golden Sun finds Darrow fending for himself in the real world, so to speak. Darrow’s good showing in the Institute lands him a coveted spot as a lancer for his mortal enemy Nero Augustus, but the gutter politics and venality of Gold society soon stop his revenge quest in its tracks. Darrow, being the intrepid lateral thinker that he is, is undeterred, and soon machinates a civil war between two powerful Gold families in a bid to destabilize the Society from the top.
Golden Sun avoids falling into the middle book trap, by heading in a new direction from the first book. Darrow, now a fully functioning member of the top echelons of Gold Society, finds himself with a different challenge than the one he faced in the first book – to navigate in a society filled with people who are as capable as he is in the arts of leadership and strategic thinking. He must do this amidst a wider, more fully-fleshed out world, one that is far more eclectic and complex than the bounded test environment of the first book.
Brown has outdone himself in providing more texture and depth to his far-future hierarchical Society. The Society is not a dystopian abstraction or metaphor, but a fully-fleshed out system. Its members are circumspect and aware of its workings. The system, such as it is, is logically consistent within the bounds of its operating axioms. It’s bureaucratic, imperfect, and horrific from our point of view, but there is a certain verisimilitude to it. There is a purpose, a deliberate systems-driven design to their brutality. You could almost imagine that a society like that could one day exist. That’s not something that can be said for similar literary dystopias whose purpose is to paint extreme and abstracted visions for what society might become if some social or political trend today were brought to its logical conclusion (see Hunger Games, Fahrenheit 451, Idiocracy).
The great thing about Darrow, that is becoming more apparent in this book, is that he isn’t your typical hot-headed teenage protagonist. He has a deliberateness about him, a sense that he thinks everything through. Brown doesn’t fall into the trap of creating character conflict through having Darrow make stupid choices, which can often be frustrating, especially if the reader is cognizant of that Darrow is making a mistake due to some inherent weakness (i.e. dramatic irony). Even so, Darrow isn’t an overpowered or bland Gary Stu. His conflict is an internal one – between his status in Gold Society and his core identity as a Red Revolutionary. Both aspects of his personality are authentic to his nature, but he must navigate the pitfalls, both internal and external, that come with his double existence.
At the end, Darrow decides to try to dispel the dissonance created by his double identity and attempts to unite his dual natures into one singular purpose – rather than to replace one tyrant with another, he tries to foster a Revolution in which all Colors, Golds included, can have a more just and equitable place in society – a society ruled by common purpose, rather than through ignorance and fear. It can seem a naive vision, and his open-mindedness can seem ill-advised at times, but it’s important for Darrow’s character growth that he embody this kind of idealism. Brown can choose to shatter it or validate that idealism in the final book, and either path can have interesting dramatic outcomes.
At the end of the second book, there is a cliffhanger worthy of the Empire Strikes Back, a classic nadir in the hero’s journey, but one that is truly shocking in scope and brutality. It’ll be interesting to see how Brown ties up the loose strands in the final book. And given the richness of the Society that Brown has envisioned, I hope he has more stories to tell in that world, no matter how it ends up after the denouement of Darrow’s story.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 peerless scars