Author: Pierce Brown
Genre: Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, Dystopia
Publisher: Del Rey (US) / Hodder & Stoughton (UK)
Publication Date: January 2014
Hardcover: 382 Pages
The war begins…
Darrow is a Helldiver, one of a thousand men and women who live in the vast caves beneath the surface of Mars. Generations of Helldivers have spent their lives toiling to mine the precious elements that will allow the planet to be terraformed. Just knowing that one day people will be able to walk the surface of the planet is enough to justify their sacrifice. The Earth is dying, and Darrow and his people are the only hope humanity has left.
Until the day Darrow learns that it is all a lie. Mars is habitable – and indeed has been inhabited for generations by a class of people calling themselves the Golds. The Golds regard Darrow and his fellows as slave labour, to be exploited and worked to death without a second thought.
With the help of a mysterious group of rebels, Darrow disguises himself as a Gold and infiltrates their command school, intent on taking down his oppressors from the inside.
But the command school is a battlefield. And Darrow isn’t the only student with an agenda…
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a trilogy
How did I get this book: ARC from the UK Publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print ARC
Why did I read this book: Oh, I’ve been waiting for this book for AGES and have been eagerly eyeing it on my TBR ever since Ana brought me a copy from the UK publisher. FINALLY, as this is our unofficial “March on Mars” month, I had the chance to read this highly anticipated book.
Trigger warning: Rape.
This is going to be a confusing and, frankly, tough review to write. I loved this book. I hated this book. I was alternately enraptured and disgusted with this book. In other words, my reaction and relationship with Red Rising is… well… complicated.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the story:
On Mars there is not much gravity. So you have to pull the feet to break the neck. They let the loved ones do it.
Darrow is sixteen years old and a Red. On Mars, this means he and his fellow Reds are the lowest of the low, below the Grays, the Coppers, the Pinks, and especially the Golds. Darrow is also a Helldiver – in fact, he’s the best Helldiver in the subterranean mining colony of Lykos – a skilled, risky Red who steers his clan’s drill into Mars’ subterranean caverns, doing his part to terraform the planet for the benefit of future generations. All seems to be going Darrow’s way – he has a loving and lovely wife, and he’s sure he’s just led his Lambda clan to receive the highly-desired Laurel for fulfilling their drilling Quota faster than any of Lykos’s other twenty-three driller teams.
At least, that’s what Darrow thinks.
In a single day, his world is torn apart. The Laurel isn’t awarded to Lambda despite their winning it fair and square; his lovely wife is beaten and hanged as a martyr when she rebels against the oppression of the higher colors. Darrow, utterly broken and unwilling to carry on without Eo by his side, commits an unforgivable act and is hanged as the Gold ArchGovernor watches on.
But Darrow doesn’t die.
“Now you understand,” Dancer says. “We are deceived.” Beyond the glass sprawls a city.
Darrow is saved by a determined Red named Dancer, who dreams of a free future on Mars. It is Dancer who recruits Darrow to his rebellion, who shows Darrow the truth – that Mars has long since been terraformed, that the Reds are left to toil beneath the planet’s surface while the Golds above reap the rewards of their labor. Dancer has a plan to overthrow the higher colors, and Darrow is to be his tool; a weapon to be broken and reformed in the body of a Gold, to lie and ascend through their ranks and help secure a future for the Reds. Darrow, determined to fulfill his wife Eo’s dream, agrees to Dancer’s risky plan – and his body is carved and reformed in the shape of a glorious Gold.
My skin is too soft, too lustrous, too faultless. I don’t know my body without scars. I don’t know the back of my own hands. Eo would not know me.
As a Gold, Darrow must pass an entrance exam to train at the illustrious Academy – home of the future 1% of Golds who become great leaders across the galaxy. The Academy, however, is nothing like Darrow imagined it to be, and soon he’s embroiled in a battle to the death to showcase his brutality, intelligence, and leadership ability – all the traits needed for the most elite Golds to succeed. And succeed Darrow does… but at what cost to himself, to his true family, to his own truth as a Red?
Billed as a cross between The Hunger Games, Enders Game and Lord of the Flies – on Mars – you could say that there’s a good amount of hype preceding Red Rising. In truth, I’m not sure that any of these comparisons have any real substance (other than fuel to feed the insatiable hype machine); Red Rising isn’t really any of these things.
Pierce Brown’s debut novel is an ambitious beast. Told in three parts, Darrow’s story is first the story of an ambitious young driller, followed by an impostor Count of Monte Cristo-esque revenge story, followed by a murderous, violent rampage in one of the best war game simulation I’ve had the pleasure of reading in years. There’s a class that fights to the death, yes, but really Red Rising has more Spartacus than The Hunger Games, more low-tech science fantasy than interplanetary space opera. And… well, I kinda loved the book. I hated it at times and for very specific, hugely problematic issues, but I cannot deny that I was enraptured with the story and eagerly ate up every second of Darrow’s bloodydamn story.
I’ll start with the good stuff: the world, the writing, and the gorydamn plotting. I am a sucker for these three basic elements, and nine times out of ten, when they are done well I’ll love the novel. In Red Rising, readers are entreated to a sweeping story of revenge and rebellion that becomes more complicated the deeper that Darrow gets sucked into the machinations of the Gold world. This isn’t a new story by any stretch of the imagination, but the lengths that Darrow goes to in order to become a Gold (physically, as the Golds are nearly superhuman with their genetic enhancements) and to fit in with his brutal classmates (his first test is killing a friend) is no small thing. I loved and believed in the stratification of Martian society (and, by extension, this color coded universe) – while it sounds simplistic at first, Brown does a phenomenal job of detailing the trappings of power and the Machiavellian approach to life, education, and governance amongst the Gold class. Similarly, there’s a style and difference in the speech between the high Golds and the lowly Reds, from slang (copious amounts of goodman, gorydamn and bloodydamn litter the text) to hierarchical structures and loyalties to blood versus to one’s “house” or clan. It’s all very fascinating, compelling stuff.
Meanwhile, the characterizations – particularly the characterization of our big o hero protagonist – are more mixed. This brings me to the Big But part of this review; the negative, problematic things that I did not like very much at all. From a character perspective, Pierce Brown is writing from the Hero’s Journey school of storytelling as evidenced with Red-cum-Gold Big Bloodydamn Hero, Darrow. This type of blatant, do-no-wrong heroism isn’t my particular favorite flavor of protagonist; particularly when he’s of the Man who has Lost His Wife and Must Protect the Helpless variety. Darrow’s entire arc is one of being reluctantly called and forced into action; his wife is the rebel that martyrs herself so that Darrow can become a Hero; his leader Dancer is the one with the grand plan and hookup to make Darrow the Gold that he becomes. There’s also the problem that Darrow is exceptional at basically everything – he’s the best and most dexterous of Helldivers as a Red, he scores the highest score on his admissions test as a gold. He is a favorite and darling of the Golds from the outset of the book, and everyone immediately looks to him as a leader when the war game simulation begins in the book’s third act. And yet… for these negatives, there’s something compelling about Darrow. He’s the kind of character I should automatically distrust and hate, but there’s something soul-searching and honest in his first person narration that just works (at least, it does for me). I also appreciated reading Darrow’s struggles as he becomes a Gold, his ruthlessness, but the conscience and consciousness of his priority to burn the Golds to the ground underlying his entire narrative.
So far as other characters are concerned, however? Especially female characters? If you’ll excuse the terrible pun, well, that’s a martian of an entirely different color. Female characters in Red Rising are secondary to Darrow’s story. They are devices for Darrow’s story development and catalysts for his character arc. The entire book is predicated on his wife, Eo’s death – Eo, who chooses to martyr herself because she thinks only Darrow can break the chains (and there’s no way Eo – clever, passionate, quick-thinking Eo – could do this herself because she’s not a HERO like Darrow). As Darrow becomes a Gold and is admitted to the prestigious Academy, he is alongside other young men and women – all who are clever, conniving and ruthless. Yet, somehow, women aren’t ever really in power here – even the ones that are, like Mustang, have no problem deferring their hard-fought positions to Darrow, because ya know, he’s a big damn HERO.
Oh, and did I mention the sexual violence and rape towards women? This is the biggest, most problematic, most shitty thing about Red Rising. At one point during the war game simulation, one of the House of Mars struggling to wrest power away from Darrow and his allies, systematically begins to rape his female slaves and followers. He takes them up to his rape tower (yes, he has a rape tower) and brutalizes these women. There’s absolutely no need for this heinous addition to the text from a story perspective, which is rage-inducing in itself, but then you add to this the fact that Darrow – and only Darrow – is the one to come to the rescue of these women (because, ya know, none of the other women in this world – even the ones with armies at their disposal – would dare because they’re not HEROES like Darrow). Obviously, this bothers me. AND, in addition to being largely superfluous to the story, the psychological justification given for the rapist is utterly nauseating and ridiculous. NO.
At least there is some discussion and challenge of the sexual violence and the question of consent in the book, especially as seen through the position of the Pinks, a class of people who serve the Golds and high ranking colors as a class of pleasure slaves, males and females of all ages. While it’s unthinkable that a fellow Gold would rape or sexually brutalize other Golds, it’s perfectly acceptable for a Gold to do so with Pinks (because Pinks are inferior creatures who live to serve, just as it’s ok to enslave and force Reds to live beneath Mars’ surface, because they are lower than dirt). Ultimately, the core theme of the book focuses on the injustice of the color hierarchy, how the Golds foist their power and reign unchallenged as God-creatures that are physically, economically, and mentally superior to the lower echelons. I like that this core thesis is challenged by Darrow’s narrative – even if it’s only Darrow who does the challenging (right now, that is).
So. Ultimately, what does this mean for Red Rising? Clearly, the book is not without it’s enormous issues that cannot be overlooked or remain undiscussed. And yet… there’s something so damn compelling about the writing and the storyline that I was thoroughly engrossed and addicted to reading and finishing the novel. And I want to read MORE. Does that make me a bad person? I hope not. I hope that by talking about the problematic elements of Red Rising, author Pierce Brown might just address these huge issues – namely the problematic portrayals of women – in books 2 and book 3.
This leaves me in a tough position: I have no idea how to rate this book because it is both amazing, yet so very flawed. I completely understand and respect why anyone would hate this book with the force of a thousand suns, but there’s something very readable about Darrow’s story and I kinda loved the book. Even though I know so many things are wrong with it.
Like I said… it’s complicated.
Notable Quotes/Parts: You can read a full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: I honestly have no idea. I want to say 8 – Excellent for the awesome parts, but by the same token it’s a 4 – Horrible for its treatment of female characters. For me personally? I still loved the book, while trying to be responsible about its big issues. So, I’ll go with a 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Alienated by Melissa Landers
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