Red Rising (Red Rising Trilogy #1) by Pierce Brown
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Release Date: January 28th, 2014
16-year-old Darrow is a member of a caste known as "Reds." Their job is to live and mine under the surface of Mars for precious helium-3, which is necessary for terraforming Mars and other moons and planets for human occupation. Reds work hard and die young, and at 16 he is already married and working as a highly regarded "helldiver," a position that goes to the most dextrous and intelligent of the miners. The caste system is particularly harsh, with the Reds being the lowest tier under the other colors, all of whom are ruled over by the Golds. When Darrow and his wife Eo are discovered in a forbidden section, it leads to a series of events that leads to their executions. Eo, who has had a dream of a Red uprising and always believed Darrow was the one who could lead it, allows herself to be martyred. Darrow, meanwhile, is saved from death by a group of rebels known as the Sons of Ares who have been fighting against the Gold-run society. They take him away from the mines where he discovers the horrible truth: Mars has been already been terraformed for centuries, and the Golds and other colors have tricked the Reds into permanent slavery.
Darrow undergoes a massive physical makeover to sculpt his body to match that of a young Gold. Using a fake identity established by the Sons of Ares, Darrow's goal is to infiltrate the ranks of the elite, become a powerful member of the ruling class, and then instigate the rebellion that will allow the Reds to rise up and conquer their oppressors. Unfortunately there's more to becoming a Gold than changing your eye and hair color. Darrow must also survive the Institute, a program that pits student against student, house against house, culling the weak until only one team remains. And not everyone gets out alive...
Red Rising is a dystopian science-fiction novel where mankind has already made its way to the stars and beyond, but has done so at the cost of some of our more sacred concepts and institutions. "Demokracy" is seen as a weak and failed paradigm, and only through strict social hierarchy, eugenics, and slave labor has mankind been able to establish a lasting and peaceful society.
There are a lot of similarities between Red Rising and the plot of The Hunger Games. Tell me if this sounds familiar: a totalitarian society heavily influenced by Ancient Rome forces teenagers to compete in a "tournament" where the winner will be lavished with opportunities and the losers will most likely die. Our protagonist is a young person from a mining region with extraordinary talents, fighting to protect or avenge their family and loved ones. People who may be "winning" are given gifts mid-game. There's even a love triangle.
It was difficult not to see so many similarities between Red Rising and The Hunger Games, but this book has a lot more depth than the latter. For one thing, nobody in their right minds would call this a "young adult" book. I remember when The Hunger Games first became popular and many readers were commenting on how violent it was. After reading it, I actually found it to be tame compared to many other books I've read. Katniss herself rarely kills people directly, and when she does, it's still through a projectile, from a distance. Red Rising laughs at this conceit, as Darrow and his friends often kill with their bare hands, capture others as slaves, and perform or resist torture, mutilation, and much, much worse. And these aren't poor kids from starving districts, either. These are the best and brightest of the ruling classes, purposefully sending their kids into the grinder so that they can learn the lessons of civilization and leadership as quickly as possible (think of it as "Advanced Placement Tribalism").
There are a few things that didn't work for me with this book, namely the beginning sections where we are with Darrow in his poor, folksy mining society. Brown rushes through the first section, most likely to get to the "good stuff" later, but the opening section is a drag to read as we lay down the foundation of Darrow's original life. We are told again and again how much he and Eo care for each other, how important Eo is to him and to the community, and how beautiful and special and amazing she is (seriously guys, she's the best). It may be because I know the tropes too well, but it's fairly obvious early on that she's going to kick the bucket. This is what motivates Darrow throughout the book, but the truth is that it doesn't leave the same impact on the reader. The outrage we should be feeling is unearned. She's a prop, and that makes her martyrdom appear shallow at worst, and tedium at best.
However, this is probably the only real complaint I had, because I loved this book. Once we reached the surface of Mars, I could not put it down. Following Darrow on his journey is a fascinating experience. Brown's prose and dialogue flow easily and his story keeps you hooked as you wonder what surprises are awaiting his hero and his new "companions." But most importantly, Brown takes risks. He puts characters in peril or awful situations, and at no point does he wave his hand and make it all better. There are actual, honest-to-god consequences that make every decision the characters make matter. He creates real relationships between the characters, and engaging personalities that you despise or root for. I found myself laughing, cursing, and crying aloud at this world that Brown has created, and I finished it knowing I wanted more.
The Red Rising Trilogy was completed early in 2016, and I will definitely be finishing up my time there. If you liked The Hunger Games, then I do recommend this, but I think there are a lot of science fiction/fantasy fans that would get a kick out of this book. It's a great study on conquest and how people gather and execute power in their own spheres of influence. I've already purchased the second book and will hopefully read and review it soon.