Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

January 28, 2015

Title: Red Rising (Red Rising Trilogy, #1)
Author: Pierce Brown
Publication date: January 28, 2014
Publisher: Del Ray (Random House)
Genre: Science Fiction
The Earth is dying. Darrow is a Red, a miner in the interior of Mars. His mission is to extract enough precious elements to one day tame the surface of the planet and allow humans to live on it. The Reds are humanity's last hope.

Or so it appears, until the day Darrow discovers it's all a lie. That Mars has been habitable - and inhabited - for generations, by a class of people calling themselves the Golds. A class of people who look down on Darrow and his fellows as slave labour, to be exploited and worked to death without a second thought.

Until the day that Darrow, with the help of a mysterious group of rebels, 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.
Last year, something really dumb happened that made me stay away from Red Rising.

Owing to my fascination with book covers, a book's cover usually stays in my head for a long time, regardless of whether or not I've read the book. Sometimes I'll have forgotten the book's name, but the cover I'll remember. Around April last year, I'd started reading Half Bad by Sally Green, whose cover, if you remember, has a similar red & black combination. So after that, wherever I saw Red Rising, I brushed it off thinking I'd already read it.

Yes, this really happened. I am an idiot. -_-

Anyway, thanks to a fortunate turn of events, I did finally read Red Rising. It was the last book I started in 2013 and the first I finished in 2014. And man, what a great start to the new year!

Darrow is a Red, a miner who lives in a subterranean mining colony on Mars. The Reds are the pioneers who are on Mars to get it ready for the rest of the human race. At least, that's what they're told. After a rapid series of tragic events which culminates in Darrow losing his wife, Eo, Darrow discovers that they've all been lied to their entire lives. Mars and the entire solar system has been habitable, for several centuries now, and the Reds are simply being used to do the menial work while the rest of humanity, namely the Golds (the best of the humans - physiologically, mentally, and in every other way imaginable), reaps the benefits. Filled with hatred to hit back at his wife's killers, he is recruited by the Sons of Ares, an organisation that works to topple the unfair system. He undergoes a long and strenuous process to become a Gold, and infiltrates the Institute, a school for young Golds. What he doesn't realise is that this is no ordinary school. The students at the Institute at pitted against each other in a war - a real one, with killing and political intrigue and all of the rest of it.

There is just so much in this book (testified by my extremely long recap at Recaptains), that I'm not sure how I'm going to write a review that will do it justice. Nevertheless, I shall try.

Red Rising is essentially comprised of three parts - Darrow's life as a Red slave, his transition from Red to Gold, and his time at the Institute as a Gold. Although Eo, Darrow's wife, appears only in the first few chapters, the pivotal role she plays, as well as Darrow's love for her is so great that her presence is felt throughout the book. In the beginning, it is Eo who is the one with subversive notions, and Darrow who is the subservient slave. It is only later, with her death acting as catalyst, that the seed she sowed in Darrow's mind takes root, and he begins to see their life as the restrictive prison that it actually is. And throughout the rest of the book, Darrow almost uses her as a moral compass of sorts. It's rare to see marriage in books with young adult characters (the only others I've read being the Lumatere Chronicles), and the love and regard that is there between these two, although not the focus of the book, was nevertheless a treasure.

I've read the Hunger Games, and while there is a certain similarity between the two books, I find that Red Rising has struck a chord in me that Hunger Games failed to do. I think a major reason for this is the premise of the story - the history of the Reds and the Golds. India has a similar past, and I think this may be why I could relate so much to these characters. The following quote in particular resonated within me:
"I live for the dream that my children will be born free. That they will be what they like. That they will own the land that their father gave them."

As you've no doubt deduced from the above quote, Brown definitely has a wonderful way with words. I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but for me, more than anything else, it is an author's way with words that ensures a book has a place in my all-time-favourites shelf. The world of Red Rising is extremely complex, but one that is built gradually and in stages, giving the reader time to take in each new revelation and fit it in with the big picture. Also, this book made me cry when I was 12% into it (you know what an ice queen I am, so go figure). As with all great authors, Brown has the ability to make a reader feel what is happening in the story, and given that this is just his debut, I am simply waiting to see what more he has in him.

Red Rising stands out in how it manages to be a seamless amalgam of science fiction, war, fantasy, dystopia and political intrigue all in one. It's very rare that these genres fit together, and fit well, but curiously, in this story they do. I also think that the very fact that the story is set in Mars draws a lot of readers to it. I for one have always been fascinated by the planet, especially in recent years, what with all the discoveries we've made, and when I read that the story was set it Mars, it certainly piqued my interest.

One thing that characterizes this book is it's unflinching brutality. As is customary is pretty much all dystopian novels, there is an upper echelon (mainly Golds) that lords over the lower ranks (Reds), but the atrocities committed in this story are put forth in so matter of fact and ordinary a manner that it gives you chills. For eg, on hanging:
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.
The latter third of the book is especially filled with plenty of gore. A word of caution: rape plays a significant part during the war. I noticed that a lot of readers have a problem with this portrayal of women. The way I look at it, such things do happen in wars, and it was simply an honest picture that the author has given. But what I did have a bit of a problem with was how the raping was used as a sort of tool to sort of 'develop' a particular character. I felt like Brown could have handled that better. I also wasn't entirely comfortable with how animals were treated in the story. I have a lot of love for animals, and to see them treated so inhumanly was painful. I'm not talking about something like kicking a dog; that I can handle. But there's a scene where soldiers cut open the bellies of dead horses, climb in, and stitch back the poor animals - to hide from the enemy. Its definitely ingenious and sensational, but was it completely necessary? I don't know. It was during these parts that I felt like Darrow (and by extension the reader) kind of lost sight of where he was going, and why he was doing all of it. There were actually parts where I had to ask myself, "Wait, why exactly is he doing this again?" Given how vocal several readers have been about these (and some other) issues, let's see how the author does things in Golden Son (which I cannot WAIT to read!)

Red Rising has been compared to The Hunger Games and Ender's Game, and a few other similar dystopians, but I think the comparison is inevitable with something of this genre. The real question isn't whether it's better or worse than it's predecessors, but whether it can stand out from the rest and not just be 'another book like The Hunger Games'. In my opinion, Red Rising succeeds marvelously in this regard. Red Rising also reminded me of one of my favourite features of well written dystopians - how they take real world elements like power play and blow them up so that we can see what they look like up close.
He is ugly in a world where he should be beautiful, and because of his deficiencies, he was chosen to die. He, in many ways, is no better than a Red.
It really makes one think about the world around us, and what we all might be heading towards. Who doesn't love books that make us think?

Darrow is without doubt the star of this story, and the growth that he undergoes from start to end is simply amazing. I found myself cheering him onwards, as he transformed from an angry, directionless rebel, into a still angry, but purposeful leader. A noteworthy moment was when he recognizes the fact that even those whom you call 'enemy' are not all so, but also include people just like you, whom you can relate to, and be friends with too.
There is goodness in Golds, because in many ways, they are the best humanity can offer.
One of my reading notes actually read, "Omg the effing transformation! How he's grown! I'm so proud of this boy right now." And I was. But the secondary characters are no less unforgettable either. Servo, a fellow student at the Academy, was my favourite, and reminded me a lot of Dustfingers from the Inkworld series by Cornelia Funke. The complexity between his birth and his reality, and how he deals with it makes for a fascinating character. We learn little about most of the secondary characters, but they've still managed to pique my curiosity, and I'm eager to get to know them better in the coming books.

And speaking of the next books, Golden Son is already out and getting amazing reviews, so I think it's about time you closed this window and found your way to getting this book into your hands.

BOTTOMLINE: It may be touted as the child of The Hunger Games & Ender's Game, but Red Rising has an identity that's all it's own, and I cannot wait to see what it has in store for us all.

The Book Nookery:  Darrow is the Everyman, the ordinary worker, the common man to whom we all can relate! Not.

Xpresso Reads: Ultimately, the Red Rising Trilogy is a story of rebellion, and this is its first chapter. 

The Book Smugglers: 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.

Now we come to my favourite part *rubs hands in glee*

I grasp my wife as the clans flow in dance throughout the square to join us. We sweat and we laugh and we try to forget the anger. We grew together, and now we are grown. In her eyes, I see my heart. In her breath, I hear my soul. She is my land. She is my kin. My love.

An empire cannot be destroyed from without till it is destroyed from within.

"Blood begets blood begets blood begets blood..."

Funny thing, watching gods realise they've been mortal all along.

Steel is power. Money is power. But of all the things in the worlds, words are power... Words are weapons stronger than he knows. And songs are even greater. The words wake the mind. The melody wakes the heart. 

And one of my favourites, from the Acknowledgements:
And to the reader, thank you. You're going to bloodydamn love these books.