In Pierce Brown’s debut novel, Red Rising, humanity lives in a strictly hierarchical society, with the various castes marked by colors: Golds at the top, Reds at the bottom, Pinks for pleasure, Yellows for bureaucrats, etc. Darrow, a young Red, who mines beneath the surface of Mars for Helium-3, has always accepted the hierarchy as it has been drummed into him, until events cause him to see things differently. Eventually, he is set on a path whereby he will seek to undermine the Golds’ power and spark a revolution of Reds. If, that is, he can stay true to himself and his mission even as he infiltrates the Gold society. Because of the many twists in the novel, that pretty much all I’m going to say about plot.
Usually I like to start with the positives of a novel. But despite the fact that I’m pretty sure Red Rising will end up in consideration for my top ten list this year, I’m going to start with the negatives.
First is that in order to get Darrow into the Gold society, the novel requires some hefty suspension of disbelief. I think Brown understands this, as he spends a lot of time covering the preparation of Darrow to enter Gold society, which involves bodily reconstruction and cultural education/re-education. I appreciated the time spent, but still have to admit if I thought too long or hard about what Darrow was doing — the gap in cultures he was trying to span in a relatively short period of time — it was hard to imagine how he was pulling it off. Luckily, the novel’s brisk action soon had me moving too fast to stop to think about it, save on a few particular occasions. I’m guessing most people will go through that same process: “Wait, he could never pull of the . . . oh look — pulse swords and horses!”
Second, several plot moves, especially early on, are predictable, and even slightly experienced readers will recognize several common YA/Dystopia tropes, as well as find some comparisons to other works running through their heads, most notably THE HUNGER GAMES, The Lord of the Flies, HARRY POTTER, and Ender’s Game, as well as more classic dystopias such as 1984 and Brave New World. That said, the predictability lessens greatly after the opening section of the book. Brown tosses in several entertaining plot twists, and any lingering predictable events add to the tension rather than diminish it, as the reader waits for the shoe to drop. The tropes are well handled, and Brown at least avoids the one I most dreaded — the seemingly requisite love triangle. Similarities to other works are either superficial, bent in original fashion, or fondly pointed to, as with several sly references to several of the listed books as well as others (keeping an eye out for such nods will make for a good game as you read). I’d also argue that Brown’s version of similar storylines, at least in comparison to the other YA books, is generally richer, more sophisticated, and often darker, not in a gratuitous way but in a way that lends a greater depth to the reading experience.
Female characters are a bit in short supply, at least as major players, with only a few exceptions, one of which is more of a plot-moving character who doesn’t get a lot of page time, while another is mostly a plot antagonist whom we also don’t spend much time on. The third and most interesting one doesn’t appear for a long time, and I wish we had gotten some sharper characterization for her, though I assume that will come in the sequel. And while these three women are portrayed as quite strong, others are presented in what have become familiar plot points: victims or potential victims of rape and goads to male action due to being put at risk.
So the first two problems are mostly counterbalanced — the required suspension of disbelief by the book’s action and pace, the familiar tropes/influences either by being handled in richer and/or more original fashion or by Brown’s winks and nods to said influences. The female characterization, one hopes, will deepen as we move forward.
With Red Rising’s few flaws canceled out, what remains are its many strengths. As mentioned, the action, especially as one moves past the training stage, is compelling, and its pace and activity accelerate in the last quarter of the novel, leading to a strong finish.
Darrow is a richly developed character, one Brown really takes his time with. Darrow is not all that likable at the start, but as the book progresses, as his character deepens with experience, the reader’s views toward the character deepen as well. Like all good characters, he contains multitudes and he struggles to not suppress those multitudes but to integrate, to make himself whole and in control of himself:
I know I am impetuous. Rash. I process that. And I am full of many things — passion, regret, guilt, sorrow, longing, rage. At times they rule me, but not now. Not here.
He moves forward in fits and starts, sometimes sliding backwards, sometimes learning his lessons quickly, sometimes slowly. He does bad things and good things. He is driven but is also lost at times. Like the best undercover agent stories, he has to guard against empathizing with those he is trying to defeat, or worse, becoming just like them:
I forget that Cassius, Roque, Sevro, and I are enemies. Red and Gold. I forget that one day I might have to kill them all. They call me brother, and I cannot but think of them in the same way.
And yet, in some ways, guarding too much so against those possibilities means to become cold and heartless — in other words, in trying to not be one of them, he runs the risk of becoming one of them. He is warned early on that he will be a good man who must do bad things, and this is borne out again and again. Often, there are no “good” choices, and the reader cannot help but be moved by those moments when Darrow agonizes over what he must do, or over what he has already done. Just as the reader also falls into the same problem as Darrow — empathizing with or liking those Gold bastards, even as we root for Darrow to take them down.
Many of the side characters, though not as detailed in development (tough to do from Darrow’s first person POV), are also nicely rounded characters, and with the male characters in particular, Brown does more than simply create interesting characters; he places them in the context of intriguingly real relationships — ones that change, that have highs and lows, that feel true to life. He does a nice job of portraying both friendship and competitiveness, hatred and jealousy, shame and guilt. Outside of Darrow, the most intriguing character was an outlier Gold nicknamed Goblin, and I hope we’ll see more of him in the sequels.
While the book can simply be enjoyed for its surface pleasures — tightly plotted action, stimulating plot twists, set fight and battle scenes mixed in with more intellectual discussion of tactics and strategy — the thematic depth adds another whole layer of enjoyment, with its examination of class structure, of hierarchies, of the uses and abuses of power: the way it is gained and maintained, the means by which one group oppresses another, the power of words and image and tradition. These are age-old questions, ones we continue to struggle with and that continue to be explored in our arts, and I not only enjoyed how Brown does so here, but also how he seems to acknowledge that lengthy artistic tradition by referencing Classical thinkers (Romans in particular are a direct influence on this setting’s culture). In fact, in language and style, and in the use of the occasional aphorism, there is a real sense of Classical literature and drama at times as one reads.
The language throughout, in fact, is yet another strength. Even at the start of the novel, where I had some concerns as my son and I listened to the audio version (I began on audio as we traveled out west, listening to about half of it, then read the latter half) with regard to some of the obvious tropes and clearly predictable plot lines, I kept telling my son, “I don’t know yet how I’ll like it, but I have to say it is very well written.” There is a notably, noticeably higher level of prose/stylistic quality to Red Rising than to most novels I’ve read recently.
Brown has taken some recent and classic dystopic storylines and bent them toward his own purposes in Red Rising, making them entirely his own and creating a taut, compelling, thoughtful novel that has me eagerly awaiting the sequel.
Pierce Brown’s Red Rising is an action-packed, captivating work that mercilessly keeps you up until 4AM in the morning (I experienced this).
There are a few rough edges — for example, I do wish that some of the backstory and subplots were more fleshed out — but mostly I just wish the book was longer! :)
I enjoyed the plot and the emotional impact — highly recommend it!
Bill’s review, above, gave a good synopsis without revealing too much, so I won’t spend too much time on that. This book exasperated me terribly, and I put it down saying, “That’s it! I’m done,” at least twice. And then I went back to it.
Darrow is a Red, the lowest level in a brutal, hierarchical society ruled by the all-powerful Golds. There is little or no upward mobility in this society. After Darrow becomes radicalized in the most stereotypical way, he is taken up by a rebel group who call themselves the Sons of Ares (the society has based itself, somewhat, on Roman mythology). The Sons of Ares help Darrow infiltrate the Golds, and soon he is on his way to an exclusive school. Then it’s all Harry Potter meets Lord of the Flies, with a little bit of Ender’s Game thrown in.
I had trouble accepting the world-building here; I didn’t see a form of currency or an economic basis for the stranglehold the Golds have on everything; and throughout the book I just assumed that we will discover later that the Sons of Ares are actually bankrolled (assuming, you know, banks) by a Gold family because there is no way they could have the power and resources that they do otherwise. This is not a spoiler because I haven’t read the other two books, and maybe I’m wrong. The degree of genetic/biological enhancement that is displayed early in the book is contradicted later on by what we see and hear of the Golds. The Golds are ruthless; to best them, Darrow will have to be more ruthless. Ruthlessness is not pretty.
So, I put the book down. Except I really, really, really wanted to know what happened to Darrow. I didn’t even like Darrow, but I definitely engaged with him. So I went back. I put it down again a little bit later… but I went back to it again. I liked Darrow’s friend Goblin, who is one scary little dude. I worried about Darrow’s relationship with Cassius. I worried about his own struggles with the meaning of loyalty, but by the end, when I hit a chapter called “War on Heaven,” I was completely, unabashedly rooting for this bitter, screwed up boy with anger management issues and his band of polished killers.
I can’t say I “loved” it, but I did not stop reading it, and I’m completely on-board for Golden Son, Book Two.