B-Movie Review: Cosmic Sin (2021)


That’s not to say it’s actually good.

Just…that it surprises one who was expecting it to be a lot worse. But the actors (with the exception of Bruce Willis, who isn’t particularly happy about having to work for this particular paycheck) aren’t having to deal with dialogue that is completely cringily insane, and even manage to sell some fairly decent scifi exposition. They’re mainly character actors, with character-actor type faces, and when they get their chance a close-up, they’re good at it. And then you’ve got stuff like Frank Grillo rolling up to a firefight on a spacebase in a pickup truck, which is all kinds of unintentionally awesome and a wrench wench who is rather suspiciously fond of her motorcycle nevertheless being excellent at nervously-selling some technobabble to some other characters who are not really reassured.

Unfortunately, there is a point at which the concept of a semi-intelligent sci-fi First Contact And It’s Not Positive, What Do We Do (pssst the answer is genocide)?-movie (which had the makings of a good movie!) gets buried under a low-budget generic action movie which, well, the best I can say about it is that it did try, it just also didn’t succeed.

And, yeah, the alien-zombie infectees escape quarantine and kill their military guards, on a military base, with suspicious ease but the resultant firefight is actually quite well-done, including one character-based scene that would have been a genuine punch to the gut if there had been a little more setup for it. (In fact, that previous sentence kind of sums up the entire movie. If there had been a little bit better writing and a little bit more time to set things up it could have really, genuinely connected. Alas.)

Anyway, the titular Cosmic Sin is actually rather nicely explained as the peacenik doctor lady’s term for what humanity is going to have to do to survive first contact, which is completely destroy the other side or at least annihilate their capacity for harm. Something called a Q-bomb is going to be involved. (Bruce Willis’ character apparently lost his rank and pension because he dropped a Q-bomb on some planet that, in hindsight, shouldn’t have been.) General Grillo decides that he is going to sin cosmically without waiting for official orders. (Which is a usually a huge no-no in the context of genocide but never mind.)

It might also be mentioned that at this point, in-story, four hours have passed since the actual first contact and fifty-three humans have been killed, and also the humans don’t actually know where the aliens’ home planet is. On the other hand, the aliens probably do know where Earth is.

(“Q-bomb, please.”)

So our heroes snickersnack themselves into armor/suits which actually look a lot less impressive than the costume designer probably thought they did, because they only cover the ribcage and forearms and they’re very bulky in those areas without seeming to provide any kind of benefit or support to the wearers. The team appears to be: Grillo, Willis, Peacenik Doctor, Grillo’s weedy nephew who demands in, two other miscellaneous guys, and Wrench Wench who gets drafted to handle the Q-bomb.

Apparently traveling to wherever they’re going doesn’t require a ship, just a spinny glowy thing and a platform. (“It’s just quantum displacement, it’s not…rocket science…”) Hah, lol.

And again, there are little touches that show me that someone at least wanted this movie to be a decent movie and thought about the actual characters, and thought about the actual setting. Willis and Peacenik Doctor used to have a thing and discuss maybe having a thing later again if they get through this. Grillo and his sidekick have a quick discussion about the philosophy of war and looking after the kid if one of them dies…and then his sidekick has a discussion with Wrench Wench that isn’t halfway bad, either. (“Apparently the Aztecs were doing quite well before Cortez showed up.” “Uh…are we the Aztecs or are we Cortez?” “We’re about to find out.”)

So they jump through hyperspace to planet Ellora, thirteen light-years from Earth. There’s some sort of space battle going on above the planet, which we see none of and by the time the team lands it’s been split up. Now…see, this is where the film’s ambitions outran its budget….and abilities. It’s still trying and here and there it has a bright spark, but it’s nowhere near able to pull off what it wants to pull off.–not without a way higher budget and some much better writing and a lot more time to set things up.

Anyhow, Weedy Nephew and Wrench Wench (and Q-bomb) plus the quickly-injured Sidekick (weird, given that he’s the only actual veteran in the group), land together, get into a firefight, and then get rescued by some local humans….who are mostly civilians who have been trying to protect their own homes and planets. (One of them is wearing a baseball cap with a thin blue line patch. I call that quality costume design and I’m only being slightly sarcastic.) Although a new character, a woman with very large braids and moderately-large boob armor and what looks to my inexperienced eye to be an entire 50-cal machine gun with extra stuff glued on it, is introduced. She’s an enthusiastic fan of ex-General Willis, it turns out. (“Do they not know it takes a monster to kill a monster?”)

He, it turns out, has also survived and landed, but he’s got a concussion (his suit helpfully informs us and him) and is also surrounded by low-budget-costumed menacing figures. Actually, this next few set of scenes isn’t half bad if you take into consideration that Willis is concussed and therefore a little bit of trippiness then works, theoretically. However, since none of the movie has been from his perspective before, it’s a little offputting.

But then the away team returns to a refugee center where the injured guy was taken and General Willis ….does something to his suit, killing him quickly. (“He was gonna die anyway.”) They then all brood about this for a moment, as though one of our major characters has not just murdered another one. What the hell?

Meanwhile: the aliens have a giant spinny teleportation gate in orbit which they can use to bring their entire fleet through and thence to Earth. The heroes will have reach orbit in order to use the Q-bomb safely (or shoot the Q-bomb into the space gate). However, without the ability to shut the gate down after they throw the bomb through, they will end up dead as well. Okay, so this scene? Got the point across and did it without involving a single scientist in a lab coat explaining it to the heroes. You have got to give credit where credit is due.

Willis has a monologue here to Wrench Wench that is supposed to be touching and meaningful, but I keep getting distracted by the way his armored crop top keeps bumping his chin.

Meanwhile, Grillo makes contact. He’s up in orbit with a damaged suit. He…tells her to send the Q-bomb to him via the orbital cannon. I think. (I initially thought he asked to be mercy killed.) –and not to tell his nephew that he’s still alive.

So our heroes are….I’m not sure what the plan re the Q-bomb is, but in the meanwhile there’s thumping music and they’re planning to make a “killbox” and the braids girl is up on a water tower somewhere, and everyone else in hunkering down behind those fiberglass tank things everyone tries to make garden planters out of and Bruce Willis pops open a flare and strides down the middle of the aisle and then, OHHHHH SNAP the aliens got to the peacenik doctor and she’s zombified now. Whoops.

But anyway, the aliens speak through the former-doctor and, eh, turns out they also think preemptive genocide is a fair response to first contact. So, first contact resumes and the aliens are suddenly ninjas for some reason and the rest of this firefight is distractingly bad. But Willis grabs on to the outside of the alien vessel as it flies off. I guess that’s one way of getting into orbit. But if he’s trying to rescue Peacenik Doctor, he’s way too late. She/it faces him and says “We never wanted peace.” And then things get wonky.

Grillo, meanwhile, is still in orbit and trying to take control of….something? But it’s not letting him override.
Wrench Wench launches the Q-bomb at the glowy teleportation gate.

Grillo sends her the coordinates for his suit and tells her to fire directly at him. He’s going to use what fuel he has left as the catalyst to, I dunno, make the Q-bomb go boom. His weedy nephew, who overheard, has a moment and then puts his hand over Wrench Wench’s and is the one to pull the trigger. Heavy, man. And ohhh, okay, that was the catalyst boom that closes the teleportation gate so the rest of the human planet doesn’t get sucked into a black hole when the Q-bomb goes off on the other side.

Weedy Nephew then goes and starts stabbing the hell out of the surviving alien ninja power ranger to the accompaniment of….harmonica music?

We cut to seven days after first contact, with the remaining cast drinking their sorrows away in a bar, the Alliance Senate taking credit for the attack’s success and announcing a dramatic military expansion, and Bruce Willis, who somehow survived being up in orbit when all the explosions started going off, fades out into the night like an old soldier always does.

It’s not nearly as bad as anyone seems to think it is–and it has some aspirations of being great.

Rated: Hell, I’m a fan of all seven.

Crouching Puppies, Hidden Dragon

Baen Books, one of the few traditional publishing companies that actually publishes decent old-school scifi, is under attack. The ostensible reason is that the forum (Baen’s Bar) might be a dangerous hub of insurrectionist incitement. Because nerds, knowing how to use protractors and speak Klingon are going to be that much more dangerous than ordinary people. 

David Weber comments: 

Baen Books is frequently characterized as a “right wing publisher.” That’s as stupid as the notion that the Barflies are plotting a violent coup. Baen Books doesn’t care what the political orientation of its writers — or their fiction — may be as long as the stories are good, as long as they engage and entertain the reader, and as long as there is a market for them. If Baen has a deep bench of conservative readers, that’s because so many other publishers are avoiding the kinds of stories they want to read and Baen is filling that void. Well, that of the fact that Baen Books tries really hard to publish GOOD stories that reasonably attract readers on their merits, as well. But Baen publishes conservatives, libertarians, socialists, and everything in between.

Why? Why pick on the nerds? Why try to take one source of joy or a simple place of relaxation away from people? 

Because they hate you. They hate themselves. They are in constant pain, constant fear, and they want power, not to escape it, not to free themselves, but to freely inflict this same fear and pain and hatred on others. I can know this, but I even so I don’t really understand it.

They’re coming for us. They really, truly are.

[Edited to add: the second link is to monsterhunternation’s discussion of the situation. Stay out of the comment section, because Puppy-style drama shows up very, very fast.]

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars – Christopher Paolini – Review

tosleepcover-reducedFirst things first: I liked this book, I didn’t like Eragon that much, Paolini the teenage, homeschooled, best-selling author was nevertheless a childhood hero of mine, and I have a slight fever that might be influencing my judgment.

I liked this book–but every point in its favor also has a counterpoint in its disfavor. Well, except this one: it’s science fiction. And the cover is blue. I like blue.

It’s got spaceship battles. But hardly any radio chatter. I mean, come on, that’s sixty percent of the fun of reading about space battles! Admittedly, this one is pure personal preference. I’m not great at visualizing most authors’ descriptions of space battles, especially fleet-level ones, so having narrator/s talk through what’s going on, with appropriate reactions, helps me. On the whole, the fight scenes were solid, although my personal favorite was the ground fight on planet Bughunt.

It’s a long book: my hardback copy checks in at 825 pages, not counting about sixty-odd more of appendices and made-up vocabulary. And, you know, it’s been a long, long time anybody has had the stones to write and publish a long-ass, stand-alone story in a single volume. Some even go so far as to think that fans wouldn’t stand for such a thing. If for no other reason, it’s immensely satisfying to get to an exciting action scene or a dramatic reveal and then realize that you still have two-thirds of the book, a good several hours’ more reading, to go. And, mercifully and intelligently, this book escaped the editors who would have doubtless preferred to break it into multiple pieces. This book doesn’t have enough story for a series or even, God forbid, a trilogy.

So in almost direct contradiction to my previous statements, I’m going to say: either that this book has enough story for two books, and should have been split roughly in half, right after the twisty reveal on Bughunt; or that about a hundred pages should have been trimmed off of what we got instead. Not even with huge changes to the pacing or with the destruction of individual scenes–I just think that a general tightening up would be an improvement.

It’s got a diverse cast of characters, which term I use in a literal and non-derogatory sense of the word: a large chunk of the cast is female, our POV is female, planetary cultures, skin tones, and religions are present), and a certain amount of time is devoted to fleshing them out and our heroine making personal connections with them. (In the case of at least one religion, it’s via a headbutt, but…) It also has a solidly-written, single-viewpoint protagonist. It also allows its characters to die or be killed.

Problem is, it takes several cycles and reiterations on the theme for the cast to actually settle out, and then once it has established that people can die for the sake of the plot, carefully neuters the threat by not letting it happen again, at least to any of the main characters. While there are at least two main characters who do get badly wounded, their survival is at no point actually uncertain–even when this requires the sudden existence of otherwise-unknown abilities. Deaths or otherwise-debilitating injuries are restricted to military minor characters or civilians. And, large as this cast is, upping the ante on action scenes and increasing tension/pressure on the characters in-universe by letting someone actually die (not to mention the opportunity of trimming some of the dialogue), would not have hurt.

It’s got alien species who are passably alien. Actually, I don’t have much of a counterpoint to add to this one, except that this is where some of the time trimmed by killing off, say, Sparrow or Nielson, could have been added back in. It’s also one of the points in which having a single narrator POV hinders the effort to show-not-tell. Yes, we do see that the Wraunaui / Jellies / graspers have a distinct viewpoint that diverges from Kira’s. No, we do not get to see anybody other than Kira’s take–that there has to be an overarching unifying force in place or else humans and Wranaui Will Not Get Along–on this subject, and Kira isn’t exactly the most politically astute person in the solar system.

It’s got a competently written, sympathetic and understandable, proactive and heroic POV lead. Kira, our heroine, loses, struggles, strives, suffers, and, ultimately, wins. It’s hard to ask for more. Kira is an active, uh, actor in the plot, decides what she will and will not do, and then goes out and does it. More than even this, Kira’s a good person. She has been taken and torture-interrogated by the military; presently, the ship blows up, leaving her in a working shuttle. Kira immediately begins to search for survivors. She accidentally stabs somone….and feels immediate remorse, guilt, a sense of personal responsibility and failure, and later takes the opportunity to ask as to his wellbeing.

On the other hand, there is also a certain amount of Protagonist Syndrome: the heroine is the only person with the plan, only the heroine’s plan will work, only the heroine’s presence guarantees relevance, and nobody else has got a clue. This type of hero works best in a shorter novel with less plot, but to their immense credit, Paolini (and Kira) almost manage to pull it off. I’d hesitate to say that an improvement could be made by splitting the narrative POV between several characters, because that’s a tool that in fast-moving action, or stories with major twists, that very quickly becomes tiresome, and also because I may be alone in thinking that the trope of “the protagonist, only, ever, does the important things” is overused and annoying.

Closely related to this: human antagonists who aren’t completely incompetent dumbasses. They’re only mostly incompetent dumbasses. Mind you, allowing people other than the protagonist to be proactive would have helped….

Oh: and (SPOILER) I will give it this as well. Unlike some authors who write their protagonists ascending to a higher plane of being / physically and mentally tranformed into a new state while losing their old bodies (such as John C Wright or Jack Chalker), Paolini allows the protagonist–you know, the person whom we have followed, sympathized and identified with for the length of the novel–to retain their own personality, identity, and human traits (all things that we liked) afterwards. The ascended Kira, although enormously powerful and distinctly different, still is recognizably herself; there is no sense of horror or loss of humanity, or (in my case), annoyance that the protagonist I’ve followed through the length of this book is now effectively dead. Indeed, the overall impression is that now she’s going to be ready for even more awesome feats in even more dangerous, further-flung adventures. And that takes discipline as well as skill. Chalker would have dove head-first into the loss-of-personality angle and you know that weird sex stuff would have been involved, somehow; while Wright would cheerfully destroy the audience’s rapport with a character if it meant being able to create another disembodied parahuman intelligence of pure logic and rationality (that is also Catholic). My hat’s off to Paolini: he upgraded his character but retained what made her likable and left the door open for a sequel.

So what’s the plot about, anyhow? Start with Alien/Aliens, throw the Venom suit in there from Spider-man, swing over to Prometheus, add Firefly, and I guess Star Trek. Very small trace elements of Starship Troopers kind of exist, but they’re folded into the Aliens melange to begin with. There are a couple of switch-ups which keep things interesting, a few battles, some character reveals and some plot threads that aren’t immediately followed up but which provide background texture. Some tropes even get played with in unexpected ways, such as: the Hive (or the Swarm, in this case) will be completely defeated if only the Queen (or the supreme leader) is killed. Bog-standard bug-hunt procedures, except that the people who suggest it are the swarm-members themselves, who would quite like a revolution but are genetically programmed to be unable to defy their overlord directly.

So, yeah. I liked it, there is room for improvement, and if, in the course of the next few years Paolini publishes another novel, I will check that one out, too.

(The prevailing sentiment in the Amazon 1-star reviews is that this book isn’t suitable for homeschoolers. Speak for yourselves, snowflakes.)

Rated: man still dreams of the stars!

Welcome to the Rebellion

The recently cancel-mobbed Gina Carano is down but not out. She’s going to be producing and acting in a film backed by The Daily Wire / Ben Shapiro and his crowd.

Carano will develop, produce, and star in the upcoming film, which The Daily Wire says it will release exclusively to its members as the company looks to bolster its entertainment division. Details are being kept under wraps but it will be produced as part of Daily Wire’s partnership with Bone Tomahawk producer Dallas Sonnier and his Bonfire Legend banner.



The Rebel Princess – Episode 7 – Recap

Wan’Ru has come to visit A’Wu and ask if she’s seriously going to be marrying Xiao Qi. Then, OWWWWCH, she had a hairpin to give to A’Wu at her wedding with #3….and A’Wu says to keep it for the girl he does marry. Wan’ru presses it into her hand and exits quietly. A’Wu is hoping that #3 will hear from Wan’ru that she is happy to marry a war hero who rescued her from ninjas and will forget her, because that’s the sort of thing heroines do.

#3 and Lord Xie have been exiled. Guys, this is exactly opposite of what you should have done. You should have killed the men and left the women, like Concubine Xie, alive. But these guys are going to want vengeance and you’re just letting them loose. A few of the Xie retainers remain and come to see him off.

A’Wu’s family, meanwhile, is worried that she’s acting so normal.

Wan’ru, meanwhile, turns out, is doing exactly what A’Wu wanted her to do, and she’s doing it good and hard. Wan’ru blames A’Wu for sharing in the fortunes of the Wang Family (and misfortunes of the Xie Family), and so passes on the word of the XQ-A’Wu marriage to #3 with extreme prejudice. Wan’ru, also, wants revenge. Can’t exactly blame her, but being duplicitous towards a dumbass like the Crown Prince seems really unfair.

XQ, meanwhile, is trying to get his house (army camp lite, remember) set up so that the Shangyang Princess will not be put to discomfort or disgrace while she’s there. Sidekick grins slyly.

A’Wu’s mother arrives to pay her respects to Concubine Xie’s funeral tablet and #3. She wants to know what #3’s thoughts are re: A’Wu’s new marriage….and has just told him what the terms are.

So. Elsewhere, Prince #2 arrives…somewhere…? to beg Minister Chen to help him save the country! (??)

A’Wu’s mother is trying to convince #3 to leave the capital, it seems. She’s arranged everything: he can get out and be safe. Tomorrow. At midnight. Be there or be tortured horribly to death, probably.

Meanwhile, the Empress has arrived to pay a visit to A’Wu. But no amount of talking up XQ is going to assuage a broken heart. Empress promises anything in return if A’Wu is just going to be a good girl this once….but no, not to the extent of sparing her. Not that.

XQ is stalking around his decorated manor house to the accompaniment of brooding, ominous music, as one does when one is a brooding hero against whom marriage and assassination plots have been sprung. The music is ominous, because Minister Wen has shown up….with a dagger.

Which is not a smart thing to bring to a fight with not one, but two master swordsmen.
Minister Wen says: if you are going to marry A’Wu, then just go ahead and kill me and give my head to Lord Wang.
XQ says: and if I don’t marry her?
Minister Wen has to think this over a bit. What he has to say is of the utmost importance to the realm and is XQ man enough to hear it and act on it?

A few minutes later, XQ and Sidekick discuss: well, the Wang Family’s sudden rise prominence and assorted people’s falls does seem rather….coincidental, and now we’re going to be dragged into it via this marriage, but what can we do? Get out of town?
Sidekick says: Sure, that’d be smart, but do you actually want to leave the girl behind?
XQ says: Got it in one, kid.

So it appears that our hero is, well, kinda smitten.

Someone has just shown up at A’Wu’s room-slash-prison with drugged tea and is hustling her out to join #3 out in the boat. Her mother then shows up to put her seal of approval on the plan and hug her daughter farewell….and give her a box of unmarked gold. A’Wu kowtows until the lady-in-waiting drags her off, lol.

So the women are hurring down the road in the rain and, GUESS WHAT HAPPENS. GO ON. GUESS.

No, not that.

No, not that either.

A’WU TRIPS AND FALLS. (why? It’s not actually as if this scene even INVOLVES heights or handsome men.)

#3 isn’t at the boat….he’s still in the freaking temple. And remembering how his mother once told him to stay away from A’Wu, since politics were involved and the situation might get dicey if he did. A’Wu stands out in the rain, with only the lady-in-waiting’s tiny little umbrella, waiting. For hours.

Lord Grand Vizier Dad Wang, meanwhile, is at his own devotions, when his wife walks in. She demands to know, in front of his ancestors, whether it was him who poisoned her brother the Emperor. Or at least if he’s man enough to admit it. And when he does, she pulls out a knife and with trembling hand…

LOL. He just leans back and closes his eyes and waits with a serenely sarcastic expression….and finally his eyes just pop open again and he just tells her to put the knife down. Dude has got balls, gotta give him that. But he also stops her from killing herself, which she also, naturally, resents. And at this point news arrives that A’Wu has vanished.

Hah, XQ and his Sidekick are packing up to get the hell out of Dodge. They’re going to leave via the river…

A’Wu is still waiting, in the rain, by the river.

(The order has gone out to lock the city gates, and at this point this is when the absolute dumbass #3 realizes that A’Wu was going to elope with him). At least, down at the river, it has finally stopped raining. On the other hand, Dad has arrived. With ninjas.

He yells at her a bit, points out that #3 is a dumbass who didn’t show up, and is too stupid and cowardly to make a real run for it. And then gives her a half-hug, because even Grand Viziers have feelings.

A’Wu throws her hairpin (that #3 gave her) away and it breaks and falls by the rocks.


Star Wars: I Could Do It Better – Part IIIa

So I realize there might be a tinge of hypocrisy in putting an “I could do it better by re-writing it wholesale” post directly after a post on how the BBC’s The Watch adaptation just did exactly that and failed. But I submit in defense that it’s very different for impatience and anger at a franchise to come from a place of love and high expectations, rather from pure malice. (AKA: the BBC’s The Watch adaptation.) I really like Star Wars. I really quite like aspects of the prequels. But: because I like it and want it to be perfect, I have severe problems with the areas that aren’t.

Notice: I don’t have any such issues with things like The Mandalorian, for which I have only a moderate opinion and extremely low expectations. I don’t try to make The Mandalorian better–the mental effort isn’t worth the reward. I don’t have any issues with the Original Trilogy, because there’s no point. I find it perfectly satisfying the way it is.

But I like Star Wars (the real one.) It inspires me, and I want to create something like it: something wholesome, and fun, funny, exciting, romantic, adventurous. I want it to be smart and clever; to avoid the pitfalls that always annoy audiences (me). I want to correct the things it did wrong once and for all, and I want to copy out the things that it did right, except better and bigger and more impressive and with 1,000 elephants.

And anyhow, that’s my defense of fanfic authors re-imagining their favorite worlds and in particular the never-to-be-filmed epic, The Wars Of The Old Republic.

Except for the bit with the severed heads in the mail. I actually don’t know where that came from.

Reblog: Happy Birthday to Leigh Brackett!


Cirsova observes that the Queen of Mars and hard-boiled Babe of Film Noir would have been 106 today and that there are plenty of ways to celebrate, whether by watching one of the many award-winning movies she scripted (HATARI! happens to indeed be an excellent choice, bravo Cirsova; but so is The Big Sleep, or Rio Bravo, or Rio Lobo, or Eldorado), or by reading one of the many memorable books she has written.

Stranger at Home is a possibility, if you want a combination hard-edged melodrama or romance-infused noir; or No Good From a Corpse if you just want straight-up, hard-boiled, smack-talking, straight-shooting, private-detective-starring noir.

Or perhaps, if you are in the mood for a glimpse of another future, where time has worn even the dust of aeons away from the shattered palaces and crumbling walls: there is Shadow Over Mars/The Nemesis From Terra.

Or if you want just plain space opera, the stories of dangerous, laughing women and grim, conquering men, evil geniuses and star traders and space-sickness and stowaways, try Starmen of Llyrdis.

Happy Birthday, Ms. Brackett. Thanks for the stories. You gave us a glimpse of the stars as they should be, not as they are.

Red Rising – Pierce Brown – Book Review

red-risingSo I distinctly remember when I first read this book–it was in 2016, just before I went back to school. Lucky thing for me, too, because I was up all fricking night reading it, and who needs a brain for office work? For an exile from the stars, this was a blast from the past. It has–and revels in–an old-fashioned sense of grandeur and scale; it consciously leans into the pageantry of planetary romance, of decadent empires, mighty warlords, grovelling slaves, passing through the fire, children becoming adults, and the excesses of cruelty, loyalty, and courage that are used to create the next generation of warriors, leaders, servitors–and tyrants.

TLDR: It’s like Ender’s Game, but *hardcore*.

Plot: Sixteen year old Darrow of Lykos thinks he has it made. He’s a Helldiver–the most prestigious and dangerous jobs in the mining business–he’s married to the lovely yet rebellious red-haired Eo, and he’s just managed to raise their unit’s production of Helium-3 to the point where they are all but sure to get the Laurel, a generous bonus of supplies shipped in at great expense to their tiny, underground Martian colony all the way from Earth.

Except that in short order, Darrow’s world is destroyed. The Laurel is given to a different unit (unjustly); he and his wife are flogged for leaving their unit area–and then, at the command of the Governor of Mars, Augustus au Nero himself, Eo is executed for, well, being rebellious. Darrow soon follows her, but is saved by a mysterious terrorist group called the Sons of Ares. And a new world opens up to him instead. Mars is not a new-fledged, struggling colony–it’s a prosperous world which found it more profitable to keep its economic producers (the miners) in complete ignorance of the fact. More, Mars is only a part of the solar Empire; Man has terraformed and colonized almost every part of the solar system. That is, some men have.

Darrow is a Red: one of the mining caste. His overseers are Grays. The feared and dreaded soldiers are Obsidians. Pinks are bred for pleasure and Blues for engineers. The world is strictly divided between Colors, but on the top are the Golds. These are men and women born, engineered, educated, shaped, and molded to be the rulers of a society that stretches from Venus to Pluto and beyond.

The Sons of Ares want Darrow to become a Gold. Specifically, they want him to join the Institute, the highest of the highest…institutions…that produces the actual leaders of their Society. This is the place where the future admirals, governors, administrators, and generals go….and where they send their children. Including the children of Augustus au Nero.

(And yes, indeed, it is a strange plan that requires extensive surgery and biomodification carefully noted by the author; and on re-read, the fact that Darrow can go from a hardscrabble pseudocolonist to hitting the 99th percentile in the intake exams does strain credulity a little. On the other hand, part of this book’s charm is the fact that Darrow is an Awesome Hero in an old-fashioned way: the story follows him because he’s the best there is. Now, he’s not a Gary Stu because we see him suffer, make mistakes, work hard, trust the wrong people, and fall on his face–but overall, he’s the hero because he does incredible, impossible things and because he does incredible things he’s a hero. I like heroes. I think everybody does.)

Anyhow, exactly what the Insitute is and does is kept intensely secret, although you’d think that the casualty rates would offer a clue. Basically, several hundred picked cadets in several groups are dropped on a planet with a varying amount of resources and left to battle it out amongst themselves. House Artemis, for example, gets horses. House Ceres gets a castle with beehives, fields, defensible walls, and bread ovens. Darrow is a member of House Ares. They have weapons, but no home base; the ability to hunt for meat but not to bake bread or store it; and they have….personnel issues.

As I said, Ender’s Game–but with graphic violence and without adult supervision. Or–as it finally turns out–worse than that: the Proctors who are supposed to be supervising and maintaining their Houses have been taking bribes and playing politics. So no matter how brilliant Darrow is, becoming an accepted leader, gathering strong allies, uniting the Houses, taking over the gameboard, he will not be allowed to become First. That prize has been reserved for another. –For The Jackal: the son of Nero au Augustus….the man who killed Darrow’s wife.

The drama, it is evident, no? The book leans heavily into it, too, with Darrow brooding on and emphasizing to himself and the reader the epic scope of the battle he is fighting: the courage, the malice, the terrible power (institutional, societal, and personal) of the enemies he engages. This is cleverer than it sounds, because, as he struggles and ultimately triumphs, the stakes have been laid to raise underdog-hero Darrow to the same larger-than-life level as the men and women who unironically name themselves after the gods of old Olympus.

Image via red-rising.fandom.com/wiki/Darrow_O’Lykos

This book apparently didn’t make too much of a splash, coming out as it did at the tail end of the YA-novel bubble. (Although there is a sequel series I have thus far declined to read; it looks depressing.) I think there are a few other factors in play: namely, that this is a military scifi (not amenable to the interests of Twilight-loving YA consumers); that it has a heroic male protagonist who undergoes a rite of passage (thus not conducive to the agendas of YA publishers); that it’s competently written and has a distinct authorial style (complete anathema to the YA genre.)

I’m pretty out of touch with current scifi scene, but Mil-SF doesn’t seem to be a very popular publishing choice any more, let alone old-school space opera, let alone pseudo-planetary romances. Sweeping vistas, unexplored frontiers, and larger-than-life characters aren’t fashionable anymore. Male protagonists–even more so, a male who was actually if briefly married–are even stranger. But my greatest liking for this series comes from the last two points: that Darrow is heroic, and that these books are pretty darned well written. But in the interets of time I’ll limit my gushing.

Darrow is a hero because he has a good heart and a good goal and the former mostly prevents the latter from overwhelming him; because he uplifts (or at least tries to) others; and because he feels regret and guilt about the deaths he has caused. Equally importantly, he’s the protagonist–the guy who tells the story, and from whose point of view we follow events–and: he has an active role in shaping events in the story, and he’s cool and does cool things successfully.

The book is well-written. It is. It has a distinct narrative voice–short, rhythmic sentences, first-person narration, present tense–that takes a minute to get used to and then becomes invisible. Mostly though, it’s the worldbuilding that’s impressive, and here’s how.

The concept of the Institute is kind of stupid, but it’s what Pierce Brown wanted to read and so had to write….but he took the time and put in the effort to design a society that legitimately would believe dropping its future leaders on a planet to fight it out with their bare hands is a winning move, and then he portrayed that society faithfully and worked within the boundaries he’d set for himself. The idea of turning a Red miner from a low-gravity planet into a Gold, basically an entirely different human subspecies, is likewise kind of ludicrous; but Brown walks the reader through the process from bone regeneration to eye replacements without skimming over details (although I submit that the sleep-learning was a cheat). He’s thought long and hard about how his universe works, and the verisimilitude, even when not flaunted front and center, shows through the cracks.

Lastly, because I’m running out of time at this point: his characters are good. Darrow’s emphasis on the vividest traits of each person he meets works for the best, because it means that each person has some memorability. Better yet, almost everybody has a distinct and strong personality. Pax is boisterous. Sevro is gross and boisterous. Mustang is idealistic. The Jackal is calm and scary. Antonia is a bitch. Fitchner is getting too old for this sh*t.

But mostly I like Sevro. Wild-haired savage sidekicks are the best.

Rated: Rise