“My honour has been pissed upon. And I demand satisfaction.” (Golden Son, 104)
Someone once told me that every fight sequence should tell a story, that there should be a point to the fight beyond it just being “cool.” As a girl who prides herself on preferring action to romance, I love fight sequences in my books and my film/television. And thanks to that oh-so-wise person, I also love to give some active thought about why I love the fight sequences I do — or, more accurately, I can’t help but analyze the narrative purpose of a really good fight scene.
SPOILER WARNING: This post will contain some spoilers for the Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown, specifically everything through Chapter 12 of its second installment, Golden Son. Read on at your own risk.
“Break the chains!” (Red Rising, 46)
There are many fights and battles to choose from within Brown’s series as it takes place on a particularly brutal and violent future Mars with a rigid societal hierarchy best described as: if Imperial Ancient Rome embraced eugenics. It is a world where the children of the elite ruling class, the “Golds,” must prove their worth by playing a particularly dangerous live-action game of Risk complete with rape, murder, torture, conquest, betrayal — and this is all just in the first book.
Despite all this, there is one particular fight in the second novel, Golden Son, that I remember vividly: a one-on-one duel between our protagonist, Darrow au Andromedus, and his former-ally-turned-nemesis, Cassius au Bellona. At roughly ten pages, it’s not a particularly long fight, but what I found more interesting was the significance of the fight itself — how the scene was not just about the clashing of two angry young men.
Perhaps it would be best if I briefly set the scene: Our undercover Red-turned-painfully-to-Gold, Darrow, has been taken into the Augustus family’s employ after the Institute; the family patriarch, Nero au Augustus, functions as something like his liege-lord. However, after suffering a defeat at the hands of Karnus au Bellona, one of Cassius’ older brothers, Nero has decided that Darrow is “burdensome to [his] interests, both economically and politically” (GS, 30) and is going to sell his contract to another house in three days’ time. Thus, three days later, we’re at a particularly glittering gala in which all the Gold houses have gathered, and it is here that Darrow chooses to issue his very public and very theatrical challenge to Cassius.
“I make a grand show of it for the hot-blooded ones.” (Golden Son, 113)
I do not use the word theatrical lightly. It is a theatrical moment, with Darrow springing onto the Bellona family table, crushing plates underfoot as he shouts for all the other gathered families to hear like Maximus, in Gladiator, crying, “Are you not entertained?” In answer to the question: yes, they are entertained because, as Nero au Augustus says earlier in the chapter, “Everything is politics” (GS, 91), and Darrow’s actions are pure political theatre, especially when defined as political action or protest that has a theatrical quality to it. Despite the fact that Darrow is more of a res non verba (actions, not words) kind of young man, the speech he uses to goad Cassius into the duel would have made a political wordsmith like Cicero proud; because he doesn’t just piss off Cassius, but the entire Bellona family.
Darrow has always been the Edmond Dantès of Brown’s trilogy: the ultimate undercover agent, infiltrating those who destroyed his life like the very shadow of Death — it is little wonder he becomes known as “The Reaper of Mars.” Yet he is a reaper on a leash, a “sheep wearing wolves’ clothing in a pack of wolves” (RR, 152) who, despite being made a god, is treated not as a person, but as property. First he was a slave as a Red of Lykos, working himself to death for a lie that was fed to him since birth; a lie that justified the enslavement of an entire slice of the population. Then he was a tool for the Sons of Ares — and though Dancer may have offered Darrow the choice, the group (specifically Harmony) seems to view him not as a boy, but a living weapon. And to Nero au Augustus, Darrow has become nothing more than a contract: something to be sold when no longer useful. Darrow has not had the agency of Dantès, for he has known nothing but some form of slavery or employ for the entirety of his existence within the series up to this point.
Thus Darrow’s “political theatre” is multifold: (a) using his (albeit waning) position as a lancer — an employee/representative — of the house of Augustus to “make that simmering hatred between [them and Bellona] boil over into war” (GS, 113), thus (b) weakening the (arguably) two most powerful Gold families and, while not necessarily guaranteeing himself success, at least better chances to (c) as a Red, spit in the face of the Golds that would rule him as something less than human — specifically spitting in the face of his dark mirror image: Cassius au Bellona.
“We’re all devils.” (Golden Son, 109)
A good fight scene has an emotional centre, and despite the overt “political theatre” that the Darrow/Cassius duel presents on the surface, it is still built on a foundation of mutual rage and betrayal.
Back when I reviewed Red Rising in 2014, I hesitated to call any of the relationships between the Gold teens at the Institute “friendships,” instead saying there were only “allies” and “enemies” for Darrow because, after all, he was an undercover agent seeking to destroy the Golds by infiltrating them and besting them at their own game. How could Darrow truly be friends with the very people he sought to destroy? Even so, I was mistaken; Darrow did make friends within the Institute — particularly, Cassius. Darrow remarks that “once [he and Cassius] were like brothers” (GS, 109), and it’s not empty rhetoric. The tragedy of their intense, brotherly relationship was that it was, ultimately, doomed to fail, built as it was upon two terrible truths.
First: Darrow is not a Gold.
Second: Darrow killed Cassius’ twin, Julian.
The first is important to Darrow, the second to Cassius; and it is the latter which leads Darrow to win the duel. Cassius’ rage at the death of his gentler-half at the hands of the very person who had been his closest ally at the Institute pushes him deeper into the quagmire of the Golds’ political arena. He becomes a flashy, easily recognizable figure by winning many a duel against other Golds until he is gifted the “rising sun of the Morning Knight” and, were the series’ titles not about Darrow, he could easily be the titular “Golden Son.”
It is easy to loathe Cassius — we are in Darrow’s perspective, after all — but he is as tragic a figure as our protagonist, because he is a young man who longs to live in a world that possesses the one thing that his noticeably lacks: honour. He seeks that which he can never have, but instead of letting hope drive him forward, as Darrow does, Cassius succumbs to despair and allows that dissonance between what he wants and what currently is to break and warp him into most dangerous kind of slavery: the kind he does not even recognize. Cassius accepts his metaphorical “golden crown,” even as he crumbles beneath its crushing weight. I believe that Brown used the metaphor of “an eagle that’s turned into a carrion bird.”
This is a fantastic image, not only because the sigil of House Bellona is that of a blue and silver eagle (GS, 22), but it was also one of the symbols of the Roman god, Jupiter. By reducing the proud eagle of Jupiter to a carrion bird, Brown reinforces the corruption and artifice of the Golds’ rigid, hierarchical society. These men and women think themselves gods — even going so far as to name their proctors at the Institute after the Roman mythological pantheon. But they are vultures masquerading as eagles; they are scavengers who live upon the work of others and who battle each other for the remains of what used to be a proud, living and thriving society.
And Darrow has no problem using the Bellonas as a microcosmic example to call the Golds out, saying:
“I see a family that is dishonourable. A family with spines made of chalk. A corrupt and fraudulent family of liars and cowards…” (GS, 104).
Substitute “family” for “colour,” and Darrow is not just speaking about a small group of people, but the entire ruling elite. But then again, substitute “family” for “man,” and Darrow is specifically using his rousing torrent of insults, to speak directly to Cassius. And Cassius, so indoctrinated with Gold rhetoric, truly believes himself that eagle on his family’s sigil; he believes the great societal lie. And so will he, too, defend it — for in defending that, he can believe that he is defending the visage of honour that he craves so dearly.
“There can be no covenants between men and lions, wolves and lambs can never be of one mind, but hate each other out and out and through.” (Iliad, XXII)
At this point, the duel has effectually already begun, and neither Cassius nor Darrow’s razors have even been drawn. The razor is the weapon of choice for the Golds in Brown’s world: described as having a polyenne blade that’s approximately one metre long and harder than diamond; it can lose its rigidity at the push of a button, becoming something then more like a metallic, charged bullwhip (RR, 97). In the hands of a master swordsman, the razor can be utilized to pierce through the protective RecoilArmour (physical equipment that repels touch and can shift to staunch bleeding wounds), pulseShields, or an aegis (a forcefield-like shield) that is wielded by an opponent (RR, 276).
While I would love to say that the razor does not make the man, it just very well might in this duel. Brown takes the time to describe Cassius’ particularly elaborate razor in detail, saying that:
“His blade is ebony now…Golden marks line the blade, telling the lineage of his family. Their conquests. The Triumphs thrown in their honour. Old, arrogant, powerful. My blade is naked, absent of embellishment.” (GS, 109)
I could not help but wonder: why take the moment to describe Cassius’ weapon in such detail? Sure, it gives readers a fantastic image, prepping them for the showdown that is about to ensue, but I argue that it also reinforces that Cassius has become the physical representation of the Golds’ hubris, of the ruling class’ need to live in the past. “It’s always pride,” Karnus says to Darrow (GS, 96), and Cassius lives in the dark shadow of the past that he hopes to perpetuate into eternity, with the associated pride as his weapon.
Contrastly, Darrow and his naked blade are the future. Unlike Cassius, Darrow is not weighted down by a Gold family legacy. He has been “forged in the bowels of this hard world” (RR, 1) and, thus, has a kind of purity to him. Darrow, like his bare blade, is an instrument of war itself, not of the schemes of the other men who play at power and imagine themselves gods; nor of the pride that rules the Houses Augustus or Bellona; and above all of that, he is clear-sighted when it comes to the world around him. He has experienced the injustice of the colour caste firsthand as a Red, and does not need to cover the ugly truth with a beautiful lie. He is, as he says:
“…[the] sword. And I do not forgive. I do not forget…Let him welcome me into his house, so that I might burn it down.” (GS, 1)
I could not help but be reminded of another particularly famous duel of rage and pride, first told thousands of years ago in Greece within a little story called, The Iliad. The duel between Akhilleus and Hektor could arguably go down as the greatest one-on-one fight in storytelling: equal parts passion, intensity, shifting power dynamics, and self-fulfilling prophecy.
For a brief moment, I wanted to equate Cassius with Akhilleus based not only on his rage over the death of a family member, but on the time spent to describe his bright, golden armour and beautifully-decorated razor. For those unfamiliar with The Iliad, there’s a particularly famous portion in Book XVIII of the epic poem in which Thetis, Akhilleus’ nymph-mother, convinces the smith-god, Hephaistos, to build new armour for her son. It is described in such illustrative detail that it takes up almost the entirety of the book, and when Akhilleus dons his resplendent armour, Homer described it such that he “shone like a star” (Iliad, XVIX).
A morning star, perhaps?
But even more than this, Akhilleus is also a character who, like Cassius, suffers a great deal of distress from others within the narrative, specifically that Hektor kills Patroklos. In his piece, “The Name of Achilles: Etymology and Epic”, Gregory Nagy broke down the name of Akhilleus, Ἀχιλλεύς, as a combination of akhos (Ἀχι), meaning distress, and lawos (λαός), meaning people or others. And Akhilleus’ distress over Hektor’s killing of Patroklos is so great that his passionate cries are enough to drive “an endless terror upon the Trojans” (Il., XVII) and set Akhilleus, by his own choice, firmly on the path of his fated death. Similarly, when Darrow goads Cassius into combat, the latter “explodes up at [Darrow]” (GS, 104) with near-uncontrollable rage and the audience knows for certain in that moment that this duel is on and there is no going back. Cassius has suffered much at the hands of others — namely, Darrow — and thus, by his own choice, sets himself upon the path of defeat.
“How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations!” (Isaiah 14:12)
Again, were the titles not about Darrow, it is relatively easy to draw Akhilleus-parallels to Cassius. However, in the Greek tragedy of Red Rising, it is Darrow who is Akhilleus, not Cassius. Darrow is very much like Akhilleus: a kinetic warrior, filled with rage, who rebels against the god-like elite in defiance of his predetermined fate only to fall to it regardless. (Nota bene: I have read Morning Star, but I began this post before its release and, therefore, want to keep the focus specifically narrowed at Golden Son for this discussion.)
The very first word of the The Iliad, μῆνιν (manin), means rage or wrath, and its application to Akhilleus is the backbone of Homer’s epic. He is a warrior who believes that he may change his fate: that he must die “by a god and a mortal”at Troy (Il., XIX) and, thus, have a short life of everlasting glory as opposed to a long life at home (Il., IX). This all reminds me very much of Darrow: here is a young man who, despite being told time and time again that he has very bad odds in surviving his infiltration of the Golds, that it will likely bring him glory, honour, and death like Akhilleus. And, like Akhilleus, Darrow flips the crux at the “gods” and says: I will survive this while also achieving glory, honour, and freedom — freedom from his Red fate, freedom for the other low colours still enslaved to the rigid hierarchy, and freedom for himself from the dangerous game he chooses to play.
Darrow is known as the Reaper of Mars, a man defined by wrath—a word, oftentimes, referred to by one of its synonyms, passion— who experiences extremes on both ends of the emotional spectrum. Akhilleus was, too, a man defined by passion, his own suffering seemingly equal to the suffering he extolled upon others. As I noted above, his name is a combination of two words that mean “distress” and “people” or “others,” respectively; Nagy argued in that same article that Akhilleus’ name functioned as a “speaking name” that was designed to fit Akhilleus’ character as a hero who brings distress (akhos) to the people (lawos) of Homer’s epic. Despite Darrow’s good intentions, he racks up a body count throughout the course of the series that makes even this action-lover sit back with astonishment. For example, within the first two chapters of Golden Son, eight hundred and thirty-three people are dead as a result of Darrow’s space-battle with Karnus au Bellona.
“Eight hundred and thirty-three killed for a game.” (GS, 18)
And Cassius? Well, I would like to argue that Cassius is the Hektor of Brown’s story. Similar in the way that the Golds play at being gods, Hektor played at being Akhilleus. The tragedy of Hektor was that his pride overwhelmed him: he battled (and defeated) Patroklus, knowing full-well his opponent could not best him, and then stole Akhilleus’ armour from the young man’s corpse to don it for himself, something which Zeus calls an act of insolence by a fool about to die (Il., XVII).
Despite this, I think it is important to note that Hektor was the best warrior the Trojans had; his incredible fighting prowess was admired and feared even by the Greeks. Homer describes him within the Iliad as “tall Hektor of the shining helm” (Il., II) and “Hektor the brilliant” (Il., V) on numerous occasions. And this man was a Trojan, the warrior-hero of the antagonists of Homer’s war story! Yet he is described with true honourifics and even what I personally interpret as respect. But he is still not quite Akhilleus who, while also called “brilliant” (Il., I), is additionally given the epithet “godlike” (Il., I); it is how, even before he defeats Hektor, the audience knows him to be superior.
I do not think the bait-and-switch that Brown pulls with his two duelists is coincidental. In a fantastic interview session with fellow author, Scott Sigler, he said:
“In another world [Cassius] would have been Darrow — in his world he would be Darrow.”
Just as Hektor would have been Akhilleus, so too would Cassius have been Darrow because, at the end of the day: it is all a matter of perspective. To keep this Classical theme going, just look at The Iliad when contrasted with Roman epic, The Aeneid. Both of these stories include narratives of the Trojan War, but from opposite perspectives: Iliad for the Greeks and Aeneid for the Trojans. In the former narrative, the Trojans are the enemy and are, thus, treated as such by Homer, called “fools” even by the gods; in the latter, Vergil paints a picture of the Greeks, and particularly of Akhilleus, as saevus, or “savage” (Aeneid, II.29) — nothing more than pitiless butchers of men.
“…his enemies fight like him, but slower. I don’t fight like them. I learned that lesson. Now he will learn his.” (GS, 110)
The Akhilleus and Hektor duel in Book XXII of The Iliad is ripe with imagery from Hektor being described as “a high-flown eagle” and Akhilleus using a charging attack, “loaded with savage fury.” And it is both this speed and frenzied attack-style that brings about Akhilleus’ victory over the more precise Hektor. The Greek warrior slices apart his former armour that Hektor took from Patroklus’ body, throwing the Trojan hero off-guard; Akhilleus uses his opponent’s confusion to stab Hektor through the unprotected point “where the collar-bones hold the neck from the shoulders” (Il., XXII), thus bringing the Trojan warrior down.
Compare that with the description of Darrow’s defeat of Cassius:
“He pauses and I charge him like some night carnivore…His defense is precise. And if I fought as he taught me to fight, I would die to him…I rage and spin, leaving my feet and striking down, beating him as a great hurricane slapping and smashing and hammering him back. And when he attacks, I bow to the side until such time that I can break him…I rip open a wound [on his arm], one on his elbow, his kneecap, his ankle. I flick the blade up and slash his face.” (GS, 112)
Cassius may be a fool, but he is a fool of a different breed than Zeus was imagining. He is the fool “prizefighter [who gets] pummeled by a back-alley brawler” (GS, 112) — and, oh yes, does he ever get pummeled. Darrow embarrasses Cassius and, while it may all be for a purpose, it’s still embarrassment. Akhilleus did the same in defeating Hektor in their own raging duel; neither he nor Darrow fought like their opponents, and their unpredictability gained them their advantage.
But even more so than the brutality of the fight itself, is the primeval, almost animalistic way in which both Akhilleus and Darrow handle their victory. The latter stalks about, taunting the Bellonas and the Sovereign by demanding to know:
” Are you noble enough to watch your Cassius die? Watch as he disappears from the world?…Is that the strength of House Bellona? Do you watch like sheep as the wolf comes among the fold?”
Ah, the rage of the young man who screams at the gods, daring them to interfere — for those unfamiliar with The Iliad, Zeus commanded all gods to not interfere with the Trojan War (Il. VIII) — before demanding a trophy from his fallen foe. Darrow takes Cassius’ sword arm; Akhilleus took Hektor’s entire body. It is perhaps one of the most well-known and grisliest scenes of Homer’s epic, when Akhilleus pierces through the dead Hektor’s ankles and uses the space between bone and tendon to lash the fallen warrior’s body to his chariot (Il. XXII).
And so fell the men of “shining helms” to their opponents, who were fury personified. Of course, the biggest difference between Akhilleus and Darrow is that Darrow let Cassius live, but I think that is a topic for another day…
Well, I think if there’s anything we’ve learned from this (small?) essay, it’s that (a) someone should send me help because my brain is clearly in overdrive, (b) I have a love of this series that might have reached genuinely terrifying levels, and (c) fight scenes are wonderful additions to a narrative when utilized well, and Pierce Brown is clearly some sort of wizard when it comes to writing duels. (There is also the possibility that I’ve overanalyzed the living daylights out of this and am completely off-base, but why not just throw this over-large post out into the internet-void?)
*Translation note: Quotes from The Iliad come from the translations of Richmond Lattimore and Samuel Butler.