With a book titled Dark Age in a futuristic series that consciously bases itself on Roman history, you know the contents are going to be pretty grim. Our hero from the start, Darrow of Lykos, is fighting a losing campaign on Mercury against the treacherous Gold-elevating Society led by the depraved Atalantia au Grimmus. His wife, the demokratically elected Sovereign Virginia au Augustus, is fighting her own losing battle trying to convince the Senate on Luna to send him support. Their son Pax along with Electra, the eldest child of their best friends, have been kidnapped by Ephraim ti Horn in a series of increasingly elaborate double crosses; all three are now being held hostage by the Obsidians on Mars, led by Sefi the Quiet, who is trying to move her people towards a future that eschews savagery for its own sake. Ephraim’s protegees, stoic Obsidian Volga and scrappy Red Lyria, are held prisoner in turn by Victra au Julii, Electra’s badass mom, while Sevro au Barca, Electra’s dad, tears cities apart in search of the Syndicate members who ordered the kidnappings in the first place.
Ugh, and I guess there’s fucking Lysander.
God, I hate that little twerp with the fire of a thousand suns and I don’t understand why he, of all the villains, gets viewpoint chapters in this book. Our other narrators are Darrow, Virginia, Ephraim and Lyria, and while I know that doesn’t cover the entire scope of what Pierce Brown is trying to show us in this hellscape of unceasing violence, and while I’m not at all opposed to viewing things from a villainous perspective, I don’t understand why Lysander is singled out in such a way as to make us think he’s anything better than the scrapings on the bottom of my shoe. For fuck’s sake, a character’s actual dying declaration to him is that he’s good actually, and no, Pierce, he really isn’t. Lysander is a race supremacist who thinks the other Colors should just happily skip along back to being oppressed by his people. His discomfort with how far his actual people have fallen from the noble, romantic ideals he’s cherished since childhood is easily elided by his blinding desire to get them back “on top”, whence he will be able to “fix” them. He’s a fucking fascist to his core and he is not a good person and I really hate that I’m reconsidering my love affair with Mr Brown’s writing over this.
Because I understand wanting to show how war is hell and how it makes beasts out of even the noblest of us and how doing the right thing sometimes demands immense sacrifices, as Darrow and Virginia especially must endure, but comparing them with that whiny bitch Lysander making bad choices at every turn is a “both sides” false moral equivalency at its most aggravating. Democratic leaders making hard choices in order to ensure that the vast majority of their people can live in peace and freedom makes for compelling reading. Reading about a fascist feeling sad he has to stain his honor in order to achieve maximum fascism is boring and stupid. Honestly, we could have cut out so much of his wittering and I would have been 100% happier, especially since this book is absurdly dense and feels like three books, in large part because there are so many people here. I get that, realistically speaking, Dark Ages involve masses of people at cross-purposes, with chaos being the inevitable result, but there is a limit to the amount of realism I expect from my fictional entertainments. Even non-fiction requires judicious editing in order to present a coherent thesis. With fiction, I expect to not groan with fatigue every time a new antagonist is introduced, especially since I can hardly keep track of all the moving pieces already on the board.
Speaking of, I’m glad that Mr Brown has a lot of faith in his readers’ intelligence in remembering who all these people are and how they relate to the narrative, especially since, in keeping with older European fashion, most people have multiple names by which they’re seemingly addressed at random. But why then so much time spent on Lysander if Mr Brown’s purpose is to show that race supremacy is bad even if fascists are humans with dreams of glory, too? A dream of glory which involves the subjugation of other people is not good actually, and it would take at most two chapters to drive that home to the average reader. Instead we get reams of pandering to hard right-wing policies when far left-wing ones are cleanly eviscerated in one elegant chapter, which once more belies the weird “both sides” nonsense that subtly colors this book. Best case scenario is that Lysander eventually comes to see the error of his ways but I don’t care about a Lysander redemption arc and I’m going to be extremely disappointed if this series turns into the glorification of a former fascist.
Lysander aside, this was actually a decent, if uber violent, installment of the series. I pretty much loved all the scenes that Lyria, Victra, Volga and Sevro (even via hologram) were in, and would say the same about Ephraim except, well, that’s a spoiler and I’m still mad about the plot development. I wish Darrow wouldn’t take himself so seriously all the time, but I can understand why he does, and I’m glad that other characters can provide the levity needed to struggle through an otherwise grimdark world of blood and chaos. Writing-wise, the pacing definitely felt a bit off, particularly in the first 29% or so, with people dying far too unceremoniously. Again I get that it’s grimdark war times but see above re: realism in fictional entertainments. Also, I don’t read books in order to feel numb. The real world provides that aplenty (tho I’m so excited at the news of Sen Kamala Harris being chosen as Vice President Biden’s running mate!)
So, one more book in the series? I’ll definitely read it, but will be approaching with caution. Oh, and big thanks to Alec, who let me inundate him with reaction gifs as I read this behemoth over the weekend.