An unsolicited review of Red Rising by Pierce Brown
If you enjoy a fast-moving story about rebelling against social injustice, you’ll love Red Rising by Pierce Brown. There’s a reason Red Rising hit #20 on New York Times’ Best Selling List ((February 16, 2014) and received an A- from Kirkus Reviews (January 29, 2014). Pierce Brown creates a likeable protagonist in Darrow, a man who steps out of his station in life to avenge the woman he loves and the clan he’s grown up with. Darrow exemplifies the theme of Red Rising, which focuses on how social change is instigated by individuals brave enough, not just to see, but to act, outside the box. Red Rising is set in a futurist world on Mars, with rigid social stratification, similar to Aldrous Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s coupled with ruthless invasions, comparable to the Roman Empire’s expansionism. In fact, Pierce Brown uses both the warrior attitude of conquest in ancient Rome and the mythology born out of it to create an exciting story of anguish and conquest. With these established tools Brown builds a world the reader wants to rebel against, so we cheer for the underdog, Darrow. What’s not to like in that scenario?
The tension begins immediately in the Prologue, when the narrator says, “I would have lived in peace. But my enemies brought me war.”
The narrator is listening to a speaker proclaiming that, “The weak have deceived you. … You and I are Gold. We are the end of the evolutionary line. … Rule, dominion, empire purchased with blood. … Soon, we will teach you why Gold rules mankind.”
The Golds rule, much as the Alphas did in Brave New World. However, the Golds have no interest in placating the lower the ranks. There is no concept of a government which wants everyone to be happy with who they are and what they do. And there’s no substitute drug for “soma” to keep each color in its place. Slavery and servitude were dedicated by genetic manipulation generations ago and there is no crossing the color barrier that defines each class.
Then we learn that the narrator is not “Gold. I am a Red. … He thinks men like me weak. … He is wrong.” Hence the social divide is set: Reds, who live in the caverns under Mars and mine the helium-3 needed to Tera-form Mars; and the Golds, who enjoy the luxuries of life on the surface of Mars, as well as the conquest of other planets.
With the main plot defined, we are introduced to Darrow in the first chapter. We see Darrow’s stoicism when he doesn’t cry at his father’s trial or public hanging. He doesn’t even cry when he has to “pull the feet to break [his] neck” because of Mars’ low gravity. Then we see Darrow’s bravery as he works as a Helldiver, doing the dangerous work of gouging into the hard rock of Mars on a massive drill in heat “so thick and noxious it feels like I’m swaddled in a heavy quilt of hot piss” while dodging pitvipers that can bite through a frysuit. We admire this 16-year-old’s agility and audacious risk-taking right away, even though his Uncle Narol reminds him that “Patience is the better part of valor. And obedience the better part of humanity.” However, it is Darrow’s love for Eo, his wife, that captures our heart and helps us understand his personal motivation. The motivation Society uses for the mining colony, Lykos, is a little trickier.
The clans of Lykos are kept in poverty. Always slightly hunger. Always lacking in essential supplies. Only winning the Laurel gives them “more food than you can eat. It means more burners to smoke. Imported quilts from Earth.” Of the twenty-four clans in Lyros, only one can earn the Laurel each quarter. It’s usually the Gamma clan who earns the Laural, but Darrow wants to win it for his clan of Lambda so his wife won’t go without food. In this way, the clans of Lykos are kept in competition with one another for the basics. Their meager living forces rivalry for higher mining quotas, but it also fosters hatred for the Society that created it. That hatred it made more intense by rigid rules enforced by the Grays, Society’s garrison troops. When Darrow’s wife is punished for showing him a secret cavern with “a transparent bubble that peers at the sky,” revenge becomes a narrow concept for Darrow. But the fates have a larger mission in store for him.
A nameless group of revolutionaries wants Darrow to be their front man for revolution, so even though Darrow wants revenge, he must modify his own feelings for the greater good. Like any other noble quest, Darrow must go through many trials on the way to becoming a revolutionary leader. He must enter his enemy’s camp and infiltrate his ranks. He must learn what it means to be a Gold, which teachers Darrow that even being a Gold has its demands. Darrow must change physically, emotionally and intellectually. With each change there is built-in torment and challenge. Murder, war and battles of growing magnitude make Darrow’s journey a compelling read, even if the continuous action makes it more of an escapism than literature. Perhaps that’s why Publishers Weekly wasn’t as gracious with its review of the novel, calling it “Hollwood-ready … with plenty of action and thrills but painfully little originality or plausibility.” Indeed, Hollywood’s Universal Pictures has already taken the bid on the movie version of Red Rising, so PW was right on track about the novel’s direction.
Like so many of today’s other dystopian novels-made-movies, Red Rising is first book in a trilogy. It’s followed by Golden Son, then Morning Star. Red Rising is only the first step in Darrow’s long journey to conquer the enemy which “brought [him] war.” But regardless of whether you call Red Rising escapism or literature, it is still a fun and surprising book to add to your must-read list.
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First Light by Scott Nicholson. First Light is the first book in the After Series and was hailed as a “read or regret it” novel.
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