Author: Pierce Brown
Publisher: Del Rey (2014)
Genre: dystopian, science fiction
Length: 382 pages
My rating: 5 stars = please send more
I have a mixed review for Red Rising. It kept me up two nights to finish it, and only a few novels have done that in my lifetime. It’s compelling, the author has a mastery over getting me to turn the page, one more chapter, until there are no more chapters. But there’s issues, too, I feel I have to tell you about.
The premise: Darrow is a Helldiver, one of those brave souls who operate enormous drills used in helium-3 mining on Mars. He’s a Red, the lowest Color, but his role is noble–to prepare the red planet for human habitation. To sacrifice so that the human race can prosper on this unforgiving world.
The first few chapters set up Darrow’s life, his close-knit family, his young wife Eo, the casual injustice that is part of their daily existence, the joys they take in dance and drink. Then the Golds, the highest-ranking Color in the Society that controls the Solar System, kill Eo for singing a forbidden song. Darrow gives up all he has known to beat the Golds at their own game, joining their Institute, the school where young Golds compete for glory and all-important patronage.
The opening chapters worked for me, except for Eo’s death. I don’t particularly like heroics based on dead loved ones (“fridging”), but that’s something Brown pushed me past. I swallowed it and moved on, and I was happy that I did. (Still, don’t do this, people. Find another way.)
The other thing about this book is that it calls up so much dystopian literature. I don’t want to call it derivative (that’s a nasty word by the way), so much as . . . Brown is standing on the shoulders of giants. (Okay, all storytellers are, but he doesn’t hide it, maybe feels no need to.) The Society looks a lot like what Huxley predicted in Brave New World–color-coded castes, each with their narrowly defined social and economic role, mixed systems of social control that remind me of Fritz Leiber’s Gather Darkness. (I’d venture to say Huxley would have appreciated this book.) The rulers of the Golds have a conservatism that echoes The Hunger Games, that humanity’s survival depends on sacrifice, and they are the ones best fit to keep the species on the right track. A nod, too, to Dune, though Darrow has a different vantage point than did Paul Atreides–a young, ambitious, angry man who is more of a young Gurney Halleck or Duncan Idaho.
It comes down to this: Brown is a virtuoso at taking all that’s been done before and making it his own, never completely, always with hints that yeah, this was borrowed from this or that story. Where he shines is in characters and plot. I care when one of his characters suffers, when Darrow has a moment of brilliance or does something stupid. I can’t ask too much more of an author than that. Darrow is an outsider among the Golds, but by the same grace he can see their flaws, their fault lines, think outside their box. His Red origins give him a different perspective on things, while his priorities remain rising at the Institute while hiding who he truly is. Tough game to play, but he pulls it off, and I found it thrilling to see him winning at the Gold’s own game, proving that Reds can excel at more than mining.
Pierce Brown brings to the dystopian story a mastery of plot and suspense, characters with flaws and layers, a real-page turner that left me disappointed only when there were no more pages to turn. Unlike say Brave New World or 1984, the social commentary is not the star of the show. The action is. But through the action, Brown delivers his message. Sure there are flaws here, it’s a well-trodden premise, but the execution is superb.
And for that reason I am going to read the sequel right now. I highly recommend this book if you enjoy political intrigue, futuristic technology, ambitious young heroes. Go out and get Red Rising. I’ll have my review of the sequel up soon, too.