Morning Star is about as good as I’d reasonably hope a conclusion to the Red Rising trilogy could be.
Red Rising was a serviceable, if slightly formulaic take on the Hunger Games YA model. Golden Sun was when the series really started to distinguish itself on its own merits – with its sympathetic protagonist, its compelling future society, and its willingness to take the series in original, if dark, directions.
Morning Star caps that with an effort that is at least as expansive as Golden Sun, even if it does seem to wrap most of the threads up a little too neatly. The events of the second novel end on a cliffhanger that, in not-too-revealing terms, changes the dynamics of the central conflict from infiltration and deception to open, brutal struggle.
In Morning Star, Brown provides meaningful closure to Darrow’s character arc. Darrow is no longer in a position where he needs to live double lives – he is now able to forge a syncretic identity for himself. At the end of Golden Son, he decided to reveal his true identity to his friends and allies; in a bid to earn their genuine trust and commitment to his quest to unshackle his people. In Morning Star, this commitment to trust pays off, and, indeed, it is only with that openness that Darrow shows to his nearest and dearest that ultimately wins him the day.
But it does seem that he has it too easy, sometimes. Leading a rebellion against an entrenched system of overwhelming superiority is no mean feat, but Darrow gets some major unexpected allies, pulls off a number of major tactical miracles by what seems the skin of his teeth, benefits from incidental treachery, and depends all too much on the goodwill of erstwhile enemies to make good. Although Brown does kill off a few beloved but token characters to up the stakes (and their deaths do stir up pathos quite effectively), it seems a bit like stage dressing to throw off the fact that really, Darrow is winning all his battles a little too easily. Except for a clever bit at the end where everything actually does seem bleak beyond belief, it’s a steady but bloody march up for Darrow and buddies.But I do suppose there’s no recourse for it, in order to end things off neatly in the span of a book.
One other thing that disturbed me slightly was Darrow’s willingness to commit what were practically war crimes in the name of strategic gain. This, I think was the one moral question that the series didn’t interrogate enough to get much out of it. War is bloody business, and tens of millions die in the span of these books. It’s understandable that there should be sacrifice in the name of the ideals that Darrow and co. are fighting for. But Darrow makes strategic sacrifices to advance that cause, slaughtering innocents, which seems oddly dissonant with his rhetoric about friendship and trust. It’s the one moral weakness in his cause that could have been milked a bit more by the enemy to provide some added moral complexity to the plot, but it seems like its left hanging. I do think Brown missed a good opportunity on this front.
Notwithstanding, the worldbuilding continues to astound, and honestly Morning Star is at its best when sketching out the lifeways of the various denizens of the Solar System: the Moon Lords of the outer planets, the underground cities of Mars, the spiked planetoid Phobos, and the white sands of Venus. There hasn’t been a good solar space opera (outside of the Expanse) for too long, and the Red Rising series is one of the better ones out there.
I really like it when the series laughs at its own somewhat contrived tropes as well, particularly the whole shtick about modelling the Society on Greco-Roman ideals – exposing weak children to the elements, stealing Roman nomenclature, strutting about with Praetors and Imperators. One character memorably comments that the Society is “modeled after the musings of Bronze Age pedophiles” and delights in “tossing around mythology like that bullshit wasn’t made up around a campfire by an Attican farmer depressed that his life was nasty, brutish, and short”. It’s refreshing to see a far-future civilisation so cognisant of its own pretensions.
And really, that hits at the ideological heart of why a hierarchical society like the Society invariably stagnates – because the centralisation of power around an elite leads to decadence when the elites hold all of the power, even if they are genetically “superior”. Change and progress come from turnover, rather than order. That kind of thematic awareness acts to fortify the more conventional reasons for why Darrow should want to see his cause be fulfilled – it is more than injustice – it is ultimately a crusade for the betterment of the human condition.
In all, Morning Star is a page-turning, gripping, and satisfying end to the Red Rising series. It doesn’t provide answers to how the new Society will be structured following its denouement, but I suspect that that will be left to the announced sequel series, Iron Gold, to explore. I have every confidence that Brown will do a great job on it.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 reapers