Book Review: Red Rising, Pierce Brown (2014)

October 23rd, 2013 1:17 pm by mad mags

Love love love LOVED it!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. Also, trigger warning for rape.)

The first time I spotted a copy of Red Rising up for grabs on Library Thing, I dismissed it as yet another YA romance set against a gritty-yet-generic dystopian backdrop. The second time, I rolled my eyes at the seemingly endless comparisons to The Hunger Games – nowadays every young adult dystopia featuring a spunky heroine is THE NEXT THE HUNGER GAMES, it seems – but threw my hat in the ring anyway. (What can I say, my interest was piqued!) And when it arrived on my doorstep, I became convinced that no book could possibly live up to the hype generated in the press materials that came sandwiched in between the pages of the ARC.

I owe Pierce Brown a huge apology. I bloodydamn loved it, just as he promised I would!

In the distant future (we’re talking 700 years+, though Brown is light on the specifics), humanity has been divided into color-coded castes, each purposefully created to fulfill a different role in society: Yellows study medicine and science; Greens develop technology; Blues navigate the stars; Silvers count and manipulate currency; Coppers maintain the bureaucracy; Whites pass legislation and mete out justice; and Gray soldiers uphold the hierarchy. At the top of the pyramid stands the ruling class, the Golds. In the early days of space exploration, the wealthy Golds colonized Luna and, when it became the hub of space travel, they waged a war for independence against the countries and corporations of Earth (in a futuristic version of the American Rebellion). Luna triumphed over Earth in what became known as the Conquering, thus consolidating the Golds’ military and economic power.

“Every Color props up the Golds” – especially the Reds, whose responsibilities primarily include manual labor. At the bottom of the shitpile are the lowReds, who live and work under the surface of Mars, mining the planet for helium-3, a precious resource which is used to terraform other planets. These “pioneers” believe that they’re sacrificing their well-being, their happiness, their very lives, for the greater good: so that their children and grandchildren can one day live free on Mars. But they are slaves to a lie: Mars was settled some three hundred years previous. Rather than allow the lowReds to share in the fruits of their labor, the Golds and their allies decided to deep them in the dark, both literally and figuratively.

Darrow lives in Lykos, just one of hundreds of mining communities under Mars. At the tender age of 16, he’s already married, seen his father executed, and ascended to the celebrated role of Helldiver (though not necessarily in that order). It’s Darrow who drives the machine that digs into Mars’ surface in search of helium-3; his success which determines his clan’s food allotment for the quarter. (Though not really; the Laurel is not the only merit-based competition on Mars that’s fixed.) Content with his work and family, and too busy worrying about putting food on his wife’s plate to bother with politics, Darrow initially plays Katniss to his bride Eo’s Gale. “I live for the dream that my children will be free,” Eo proclaims in a much-quoted passage early in the book. Ultimately, she dies for this dream as well: while suffering a publicly televised lashing for sneaking into a surface Garden reserved for Golds, Eo sings the prohibited song, for which she is sentenced to die. With a few short verses, she’s transformed from Eo the lowRed into Persephone the martyr.

Overcome with grief, Darrow cuts Eo’s body from the gallows so that he can give her a proper burial – just one of many courtesies denied the lowRed miners. For this, he too is sentenced to hang. But with the help of his uncle Narol and the “terrorist” group the Sons of Ares, Darrow is rescued, resurrected, and recruited for the revolution. Through extensive plastic surgery, body modification, and alterations on the neural level, Darrow is remade (“carved”) into a Gold, complete with Golden hair, eyes, and skin; an impressively muscular physique; a skeleton of steel; and a Gold sigil on his hand. The High Golds are as lethal as they are beautiful. The changes are so profound that Darrow becomes a creature – both physically and sometimes even mentally – that he no longer recognizes. His mission: to gain admittance to The Institute, where the most prestigious and powerful of the Golds are educated. There he is to prove himself, with the goal of infiltrating Golden society; if he can become an apprentice to a Praetor or Imperator, Darrow – and the Sons of Ares – may one day have an entire fleet at their command.

Lest images of Hogwarts classrooms or Erudite scholars fill your head, this “school” is closer to The Hunger Games arena in form and function. Twelve hundred students, each drafted into one of twelve houses, compete on a real-world battleground for control of their house – and the other eleven houses as well. While outright murder is (mostly) discouraged, less than half of the students will survive the ordeal. Fittingly drafted into House Mars, Darrow quickly rises to a leadership role. However, he must navigate shifting alliances, deal with duplicitous classmates, and hold tight those secrets which threaten to undo him – all while outsmarting hostile Proctors and reconciling unexpected feelings of friendship and love for his sworn enemies, the Golden children.

Red Rising – the first in an expected trilogy – quickly became a new favorite. From the first few pages, I was captivated; by the time the war games began, I found Red Rising nearly impossible to put down.

Comparisons to Suzanne Collins’ masterpiece are not unwarranted; like The Hunger Games, Red Rising is a suspenseful and entertaining dystopia that also tackles some pretty hefty issues between scenes of bloodshed and violence. Lykos and District 12 are underdeveloped societies in a futuristic world: both are mining communities in which citizens mostly barter and trade for necessities like food and clothing. And yet advanced technology, particularly as it relates to industry, is not unheard of; the citizens are given the fancy tools to perform their jobs, but nothing more. Food is used as a means of controlling the population, and certain songs and dances are considered so subversive that to be caught referencing them is cause for death. Literary brothers Gale and Darrow both toil in the mines when they should be in school; mining accidents are common, and on Lykos, two clans are actually punished with reduced rations when they fail to meet their helium quotas due to an accident which claims the lives of many of their workers. Different classes/Districts/Colors are pitted against one another – through competition for food and resources, for example – by their real enemies, Panem/the Golds. Only when the slaves unite against their oppressors can freedom be won.

Violence as entertainment is also a shared characteristic of both trilogies. Just as all of Panem eagerly tunes in to The Hunger Games, the Proctors watch the battles at The Institute from their cozy perch on mount Olympus. Occasionally they float down in their gravBoots, picnics of quail eggs and other exploitative delicacies in tow, for a better view. Later, they edit the video down for the Drafters so that it reflects the narrative the Proctors wish to convey. Likewise, the adults interfere in what is supposed to be a fair fight, manipulating the game so that it results in a preferred outcome (though both Katniss and Darrow manage to disrupt the paradigm). Wealthy and powerful parents are able to buy success for their children – much as the children from favored Districts enter the arena with distinct advantages. Ultimately, both Proctors and Gamemakers become part of the “games” they created.

Red Rising even has a cave scene! (Thankfully it’s brief.)

This is in no way to imply that Red Rising is a Hunger Games clone. Pierce Brown has created a story that’s unique, exciting, and brims with masterful world building. The characters are multidimensional and utterly believably. Whereas Darrow at first sees the Golds as a homogenous entity, uniformly evil and comprised of interchangeable parts – he (and we) come to recognize them as individuals. Some are as cold and cruel as he imagined; others are unexpectedly kind, compassionate – even a little egalitarian, like dear Eo. Contrary to their leaders’ protestations, empathy isn’t just a “low color thing.” While all Golds benefit from unearned privilege, and to some degree harbor those prejudices passed down from generation to generation, they aren’t all enemies of equality. In the course of building his army, for example, Darrow discovers that the most effective way to earn allegiance isn’t by taking slaves, but by freeing them. The next generation of Golds are taught that “might makes right” – yet it’s clear that not all of them have fully internalized their parents’ messages.

The topic of rape comes up several times in the story, and I’m happy to say that it’s handled with care. Rape scenes are brief and non-graphic, yet Brown tackles rape culture head-on. On more than one occasion, the author stresses that rape isn’t about lust, but power: it can be used as a tool of war, a method of revenge, or a way of asserting control over another human being. Even while condemning rape in the games, Darrow acknowledges that his own, much idealized home is not blameless: men also rape women in Lykos, including the women they claim to love. Darrow’s strategy for punishing rape in his own rank and file is rather genius.

On the other hand, I find it odd that Reds are generally regarded as the lowest and most exploited class, even when compared to Pinks. Pinks serve the other classes – sometimes as masseurs or personal assistants, but most commonly as prostitutes (“pleasure slaves”). Because they’re given no more choice in the matter than members of other castes, Pinks are essentially sex slaves – their job is to acquiesce to rape on the daily. In some ways, one might argue that Reds have it better than some of the other “low” colors, particularly the Pinks. While it’s true that many of them will die in mining accidents or succumb to pitviper bites (and that the rapes of Red women mostly go unpunished; a Gold cannot even be said to have raped a Red), they’re allowed to live their lives in ways that Pinks are not (or don’t seem to be; we see very little of the Pinks in Red Rising): they can form families, have children, select their own sexual partners – all of which runs contrary to the duties of a Pink.

My only gripe – and it is a relatively minor one – is that Brown never fully explains how humanity came to be divided in such a way. The “forced Darwinism” involved in creating the different Colors is extensive, with fundamental differences manifesting at every level: physical, biological, psychological, neurological. While the Golds’ motivation is clear – creating a “perfect society” of which they are the pinnacle – it’s difficult to imagine how they forced billions of other humans to accept their vision. Perhaps this will be tackled in a later book?

Either way – and with the first book still several months away from release – I’m already dying to read the next installation in the series. THE ANTICIPATION.

(This review is also available on Library Thing and Goodreads, and will be published on Amazon upon the book’s release. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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