Rating: *Ptreodactyl screech!!!* / ★★★★★
Genre: Science fiction / Space Opera
Release Date: July 30, 2019
Publisher: Del Rey
Series: Red Rising, #5
Content Includes: racism, xenophobia, classicism, poverty, imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, physical, mental, and emotional abuse, queerphobia, chronic illness, substance abuse and addiction, pedophilia, ephebophilia, incest, childbirth and pregnancy, infanticide, explicit violence, gore and body horror, torture, character death, animal death, implied and/or referenced sexual violence, cannibalism, ableism, explicit medical procedures, child death, and child prostitution
While Dark Age, published by an American author in 2018, cannot actively comment on the events of 2020 and 2021, reading this book during the final six months of Trump’s presidency was a fucking head trip whose horrific verisimilitude culminated in an act of domestic terrorism on the nation’s Capitol. Our dystopia is here and we don’t get to have the neon-soaked inventions of our narratives, rather, it’s the terror and confusion so well exemplified in the latest entrant in the Red Rising saga.
Dark Age is the fifth installment in a series that has evolved in depth. The first trilogy, starting with Red Rising, is a fast, action-packed science fiction series following Darrow, a slave who infiltrates society’s elite to realize his wife’s dream of equality. Reflecting his age, Darrow is an idealist who struggles to nurture love and compassion in an inhospitable society in the first trilogy. Darrow is hardened by the second trilogy, his idealism still a delicate flame that drives him to incredible feats, but the questions he asks himself are those that come with maturation: what is his role in prepping the next generation of sons, can the democracy that he helped to established decades ago survive him, and can a democracy created from bloody revolution be sustained?
And honey, the glow-up is tremendous. While sustaining the incredible pacing and intricate plotting of the first trilogy, the second trilogy has improved on all fronts, primarily drawing on the strength of its characters by expertly intertwining plot with character in such a way as to make every new development perfectly damaging to my poor heart.
Red Rising has always been a series that preferred rule of cool in its worldbuilding over realism, and in Dark Age that inclination is fully embraced, introducing huge worldbuilding elements that push it towards science fantasy; the series wears its technology as costume whilst the thrust of its what-ifs are in its society and politics, which it happily unpacks by exploring the depraved depths of its significant players. Dark Age is most interested in people and why they do what they do, like why the “good” commits evil, the various ways in which we express cruelty towards others, and the ways in which we reframe our actions to fit within personal narratives. It does this by showing the wild thrashing of a powerful, entitled class realizing its end and doing everything within their power to return to a status quo that caters to them. Unlike the real world, its heroes and villains are easy to pick out — being in support or in opposition of slavery is a pretty easy moral barometer — but its nuance is in the method by which heroes achieve their ends.
It’s that character exploration that truly hooked me. And I was surprised that even those that I’ve had a relatively short time with wormed their way into my heart. Brown is aware of the readers’ emotional vulnerability and he doesn’t flinch at exposing it, cutting characters down in a myriad of difficult ways that by some miracle managed tears from this otherwise apathetic reader. While it became clearer to me Brown’s pattern for early elimination, I felt that because each character arc is opened and closed so well, therefore signaling the character’s imminent danger, that each cruelty enacted within the second trilogy was well earned, and the heartaches induced each respected and treated meaningfully, with the characters and text calling back to earlier losses and sacrifices to remember the friends that contributed to their lives. It’s a mark of skill that I was able to mourn earnestly alongside the characters and that each and every death could be carried with me as if they were family. I appreciate this idea that our sacrifices aren’t nothing, that their impact on the ones left behind mean something, even if our actions hadn’t accomplished what we desired.
That emotional resonance made Dark Age a five star book; I haven’t felt such uncompromised adoration within the series since Golden Son, but because I spent a significant portion of my read also analyzing the handling of queer representation and gender, I found some fumbled social issues worth critiquing.
Gold society likes to pat itself on the back for being progressive in comparison to their predecessors, primarily in the areas of sexuality and gender, but there’s little in the narrative and worldbuilding that actually supports evidence of that. Worse, the narrative appears to condone the ableist notions of its textual world.
While queer characters are present, they’ve yet to be allowed to exist on page in the same way that straight characters have. Straight characters have been able to voice their sexual and romantic desires (with the penultimate chapter even including a brief male-female sex scene), but queer characters haven’t been seen in the same loving relationships, nor has a queer protagonist truly spoken on their sexuality in the same way that Darrow has. With even that kind of representation missing, it seems like too much to ask for more, like say an aromantic character that isn’t depicted as a psychopath. And it seems an even more unrealistic expectation to see queerness reflected in the society itself; there’s very little queering within Gold society. Bisexuality is accepted and same-sex marriages exist, but that’s basically it.
Queer rights doesn’t begin and end at the inclusion in heterosexual rituals. There should be an overall questioning of traditional structures, such as alternative family arrangements, that show a society that has made room for difference. What comes closest to touching upon this idea is cloning as an alternative for natural childbirth. Kavax tells his son, Daxos, that he would love for his son to give him grandchildren, regardless of their partner’s gender since, “cloning is always an option,” albeit a subpar one, according to Kavax. While this shows on its face a sexually liberal society, it’s still one governed by western sexuality and its interest in maintaining blood lineage through natural procreation. The ways in which their society approaches this issue is the way we do today, with natural birth positioned as the best option while alternatives are decidedly second-rate, even unnatural or creepy.
Where the series has so far excelled as far as queer representation is its inclusion of Ephraim, who is a gay man depicted with the same amount of pathos as Darrow; he’s interesting, complex, and his narrative has nothing to do with his sexuality, despite Ephraim being the widower of a tertiary character first introduced in the original trilogy. In fact, Ephraim’s narrative intertwines with Darrow’s on the themes of fatherhood and both despair as they come to new understandings about the meaning of and importance of home and family. And its their conclusions regarding these themes that drive these characters’ action, for better or for worst. While there is still legitimate criticism of Ephraim as he relates to his queerness within the narrative, I was floored by how much I came to love his character.
Gold society is obsessed with domination and thus much of their language and ideology is mired in this idea. This has led to an inherently ableist society, but the book then reinforces their ableism through Liam, a Red boy who was born blind and who has his blindness magicked away as an act of kindness. To do this without giving Liam a voice is frankly gross. As Elsa Sjunneson pointed out on an episode of Worldbuilding for Masochists, a character such as Liam would have their life fundamentally changed if their blindness was suddenly taken from them; their blindness is natural to them, they have always known it, and to suddenly make them see would be incredibly disorienting, forcing them to process information that they never grew up to understand. It’s ableist to assume that he would want to be changed to be more like the able-bodied rather than considering that what he may prefer tools to make his life within a world that wasn’t made for people like him easier.
Permanent disfigurement is also used as a means to separate the good from the bad, with the book’s most villainous bearing noticeable facial scarring or body disfigurement whilst the valorous always have their beauty fully restored.
From interviews, I suspect that these missteps are the results of a straight white man that hasn’t really wrestled with these questions before, but I feel it’s really, truly telling that Brown has included a major queer character in his series after seeing how his first trilogy resonated with queer readers. If he improves on this front in the future or if his handling of these topics reveal a stagnant pattern, time will only tell, but at present I remain optimistic.
If you’re the sort of person who turns to narrative to better understand the world and who flocks towards difficult subjects as they become particularly relevant in your own life, the Red Rising saga is a series for right now — it takes its dystopia seriously and unpacks its repercussions, centering the humanity within each and every character exactly so we can understand how our worst impulses surface.
TLDR: Darrow is daddi & the Red Rising saga is brooding action daddi fic, perfect for those that enjoy the action and worldbuilding of series like John Wick, but would like a dash of Shakespearean melodrama added to their Machiavellian politics. Also, space swords.