Red Rising is a harrowing book.
But it’s also a really, really good book.
Hollywood screenwriter Pierce Brown’s entry into the crowded dystopian YA genre has been described as Hunger Games meets Ender’s Game, touching two seminal YA sci-fi books at once. And from what I know of those books (I admit I haven’t read either, although I’ve seen movies and am familiar with the plots) it is an apt description. As a testosterone-filled dystopian YA novel, that is kind of inevitable. I did however pick up several other comparisons along the way, however.
Brown’s debut follows Darrow, a 16-year-old “Red”, working as a helium miner on Mars. It is brutal dangerous work, but Darrow is proud, knowing that he is helping terraform the planet so that humans will someday be able to colonize Mars. He is wholly devoted to his beautiful, young wife Eo, who dreams of a better life for herself and Darrow.
When Eo and Darrow discover that things may not be as they seem and that the ruling “Golds” are hiding the truth of Martian society from the lower-class Reds— Mars has long been terraformed and the Reds are no more than ignorant slaves, she is hanged and Darrow attempts suicide.
But that wouldn’t be much of a book, so of course Darrow is rescued by a group of revolutionaries known as the Sons of Ares, who genetically modify him to pass as a Gold. Indeed, more than pass, he is remade into the perfect specimen of Gold society,an Adonis tasked with infiltrating Gold society to overthrow society. Darrow is sent to join the Institute, an academy where young Golds are trained for society.
Warning to the faint-hearted. From here on out here is a lot of blood, gore and off-screen rape and cannibalism. Plenty of death as well, but then there’s been plenty of that already.
From here the book turns into a mashup of Battle Royale and The Lord of the Flies. The students are drafted into houses based on the Zodiac signs (a grisly variant on J.K. Rowling’s Sorting Hat) and tasked against each other in a deadly game of capture the flag. The winners of the game will be showered with the highest accolades and have plum roles in Gold Society handed to them. For Darrow it will be the opportunity to turn into the ultimate mole —if he can survive the Machiavellian machinations and betrayals to get there.
This isn’t new territory. Given the economic and social upheaval around the world over the past 15 years, it’s no surprise that current YA novels have a nihilistic, anti-authoritarian bent. The target audience has grown up with continuous war, justified torture and economic near-collapse.
And that’s one reason why Red Rising succeeds so well. Not only is a riveting page turner with a great protagonist, Brown has also crafted a timely commentary on the state of modern society. He examines how the oligarchs play the lower-classes against each other, giving them internal enemies so they overlook their common oppressor. But the novel doesn’t feel like a Libertarian screed or Occupy manifesto, indeed Brown also questions what the solution is. Darrow may want to bring down the ruling meritocracy, but he doesn’t see anarchy as a solution either.
There were two things in Red Rising that bugged me a little — the color-coded caste system and the Greco-Roman naming conventions for Golds. But these were more just aesthetic issues, and in reality they make perfect sense. The Gold society is supposed to evoke the decadence that led to the Fall of Roman Empire. The color-coded labelling also made this story a lot easier to follow than an intricate invented language a’la Tolkien.
And thankfully the novel doesn’t have an obnoxious love triangle like so many other dystopian YA novels. You won’t need to worry about which team you are on.
You also won’t need to wait long for the next volume of this planned trilogy. The sequel, Golden Son, hits shelves on Jan. 6.
Buy Red Rising