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Red Rising: A Study in Trilogy Arcs

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Amazon.com: Red Rising (8601422201284): Pierce Brown: BooksWriting a series is serious business!

If you're a fantasy or science fiction fan, then few things are more classic than the trilogy arc. Dating back to Lord of the Rings (probably even long before that), there's something about the three-book structure that calls to the human subconscious. We like stories that break into three parts, that travel from humble beginnings to epic middle to explosive end, especially in genre fiction.

And I've seen few modern trilogies as successful at this arc than Pierce Brown's Red Rising series.


Red Rising starts, as many books do, with the origins of its hero. In a high-tech future where humanity has colonized the solar system and stratified into a color-coded hierarchical society, Darrow is at the very bottom as a Red. Condemned to a hard life of mining in the tunnels of Mars, he's accepted his lot in life. However, his story kicks off when his youthful wife is executed for dissent and he's recruited to serve in a rebellion called the Sons of Ares. He's transformed into a Gold, the top tier of this society, and sent to infiltrate their ranks to take them down from within.

Right away, you can see that Darrow's story is sympathetic and epic, rising up against a broken society with a righteous cause. The stakes are huge (the settled worlds, the freedom of his people) and his mission daunting. But the propulsion of his personal tragedy combined with a strong main character ropes the reader into rooting for him, despite the impossibility of his task.

In the first book, Darrow enters a school for Gold children who must fight to prove themselves, brutally if necessary. Darrow, being both genetically enhanced and also toughened by his time as a Red, manages to succeed well enough to graduate with a leadership position in book two. Even though he lacks title and history, Darrow fights hard and earns himself a strong position in Gold society, which allows him to, in Golden Son, start a war between families that begins the process of breaking down their power. Things are going well for him and he's achieving what he set out to do...

But--and this is where Brown makes his trilogy stand out--Book 2 ends with Darrow being betrayed, revealed, and knocked out of Gold society, forced to lead a truly desperate rebellion on the fringes. Morning Star is a tale of extreme risk and death-defying (or not-so-defying) stunts. It has ridiculous space battles and wild twists and every fresh reveal makes the reader question if a happy ending is even possible. Of course, the series ends with an explosive and expertly plotted climax that brings all the elements together into a satisfying finale (if you'd like more detail, then I highly recommend reading the books!).

The Red Rising series has many flaws, and each book itself has high and low points in terms of writing. But I've always looked at it as an excellent example of a trilogy, because it has such a spot-on story parabola. It begins in a low place, where its hero must fight hard and take great risks to earn himself victory. His trajectory goes up, up, up with held-breath tension and white-knuckle jeopardy. And then, perfectly timed at the end of Book 2, there's a crash. Darrow loses it all, falls to almost as low as he began, and then must start over stronger and smarter and build up victory in the right way, without the weaknesses that took him down the first time. It's a classic hero's journey, and doesn't pull any punches for the protagonist. The victory at the end feels thrilling and hard-earned because Darrow went through hell to get it, and the reader understood the stakes from the first moment in the story. The Romans-in-space setting is (you guessed it!) window dressing to an otherwise classic and archetypal structure. It's fancy toppings on your favorite flavor of ice cream, a fun new thing with a core so familiar that it's almost universal.

Which is (almost always) the foundation of high-concept ideas!

Are you writing a trilogy? If so, I highly recommend checking this one out. It's great to study, and you'll have a ton of fun while you do!


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