The Red Rising trilogy is a “must read” for those who follow young adult dystopias, dystopian fiction in general, and contemporary science fiction, as well as those interested in “big idea” fiction about individualism and liberty.

Red Rising owes a debt to many science fiction works that came before it, from Frank Herbert’s Dune and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series to Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games. Brown acknowledges the obviously profound influence of Ender’s Game in a clever line of the text: “So this kid is what? A predestined Alexander? A Caesar? A Genghis? A Wiggin?”

Despite — or perhaps because of — its deep genre roots, Red Rising is an unusually sophisticated work in many ways. Pierce Brown’s biggest leap, which requires some suspension of disbelief, is his starting premise, namely that humanity’s move to the stars would end up in a highly inefficient, Roman Empire-based oligarchy. (Incidentally, the more you know about ancient Rome, the more you’ll get out of this novel.)

That said, if you accept the starting premise, the rest of the novel draws you in and refuses to let go. The characterization, plotting, and big themes are explored with passion and insight. Darrow is a Red miner, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future, toiling to make Mars habitable for humans. Or so he thinks.

After the cruel execution of his young and politically outspoken wife, Darrow is targeted as a likely convert/tool of rebels who show him that his life is a lie. Mars is already inhabited by a privileged, decadent aristocracy supported by many levels of laboring underlings, all of whom take the ignorant Reds’ sacrifice and slave labor for granted. Darrow consents to being recreated in the image of his enemies and infiltrating the highest caste, the Golds. Even as he is tested for his capacity for future rule, he is a secret weapon bent on his new peers’ destruction.

Darrow’s training, which pits the most promising Gold youths against each other in a violent and harrowing “game” of strategy where alliances are constantly formed and betrayed and tested, is fascinating.

“Once upon a time they made children bow their heads and read books…. But we have widgets and datapads now, and we Golds have the lower Colors to do our research. We need not study chemistry or physics. We have computers and others to do that. What we must study is humanity. In order to rule, ours must be the study of political, psychological, and behavioral science — how desperate human beings react to one another, how packs form, how armies function, how things fall apart and why. You could learn this nowhere else but here.”

This novel has much to say about the dignity of the individual and the nature of power.

“They think I’m still a child. The fools. Alexander was a child when he ruined his first nation.”

Golden Son is a stunning sequel to Red Rising. Not only does Darrow’s quest become more complicated because forces realign (with allies becoming enemies and enemies become allies), but Darrow also grows to see individuals in a more mature way rather than mere classes or colors. Pierce Brown’s grand writing style does justice to the subtle and three-dimensional characterizations.

I don’t want to say too much, because this is a novel that should be experienced, not spoiled. That said, Golden Son makes the reader appreciate, along with Darrow, that replacing one tyranny with another does not suffice as change; introducing the freedom to allow for individual choice and self-determination is the only meaningful response to oppression.

But right doesn’t always make might.

Well steeped in both classical history and science fiction, Brown has crafted a mature and wonderfully thought-provoking story. The final book in the trilogy, Morning Star, is scheduled for publication in 2016.