Monday, 22 February 2016
#CBR8 Book 17: "Red Rising" by Pierce Brown
Rating: 4.5 stars
Just up front, there will be some minor plot spoilers in this review, but most of it is also revealed in the official synopsis of the book from the publisher. Any details of the plot I give, only cover the first third or so of the book. Still, if you prefer to go in completely cold, and have managed to stay ignorant of the premise of a book published several years ago, you may want to skip this review and just take my word for it that it's very good. Brutal and not really your run of the mill YA dystopian, but very good indeed.
Ok, if you're still reading, I'm assuming your fine with knowing the bare bones of the plot. Darrow works deep under the surface of Mars, mining for precious minerals. He is a Red, one of the pioneers and hard workers sent to Mars, told that their work efforts are crucial to aid in the terraforming of Mars and other planets for those left behind on Earth. Working conditions are extremely tough, hardly anyone lives to a ripe old age. Food is scarce, unless you live in the town that always seems to manage the highest quotas every month. Darrow's father was publicly executed after he encouraged some other workers to do a pacifist protest against working conditions, so he and the rest of his family have been careful to be model workers. Now Darrow's young wife Eo has started voicing dissent against the system and Darrow is worried.
When they are caught trespassing in a restricted area, both are sentenced to public flogging, to be broadcast on the video feed all around Mars. The ArchGovernor of Mars, the most powerful man on the planet, just so happens to be visiting as the sentence is to be carried out. Darrow takes his punishment stoically, then is shocked to realise that Eo is going to sacrifice herself to prove a point. Singing one of the songs of rebellion as she is being whipped, Eo is hanged and her death broadcast across the planet. Her last words are to "Break the chains!" Darrow is absolutely crushed and breaks the law by fetching down her dead body from the gallows and burying it somewhere hidden. He too is sentenced to hang, but wakes up after his execution, not dead at all. A resistance group tells him that Eo has become a martyr to their cause and they need Darrow to help them fight.
He discovers that he and everyone he knows has been fed a clever lie and that Eo's theories that they are slaves are absolutely correct. Mars was terraformed centuries ago, as were the other planets in the solar system. Above-ground there are huge and impressive cities where the Golds, the highest and most powerful caste, rule society. Dancer, a lieutenant of the resistance leader Ares, needs Darrow to agree to an audacious plan. They will turn him into a Gold and make him infiltrate the highest levels of society, helping to bring it down from within. Of course, it's not like they can just slap a wig and some contacts on him and send him off. Over the centuries, the various castes, from the lowest Reds to the very highest Golds, have been genetically engineered to become different species. People can't even breed across the castes without illegal surgery. Darrow has to go through an absolutely gruelling ordeal, having his body surgically transformed in a series of very dangerous operations. Then he has to pass the entrance exam to the Academy, where the Gold send their brightest and best children to be trained.
Of course Darrow survives his transformation, and of course he passes the exam to the Academy with unparallelled results. Once he's accepted, he comes to discover that the Golds don't coddle their children and the very first test he faces is a brutal one indeed. Having no choice but to do his very best or let down the entire rebellion, Darrow does what he must, although it breaks his heart to do so. While he is full of righteous anger against the Golds, he also hasn't been trained from birth to be as ruthless as them. Once he passes the first bloody test, he finds himself in a real-life strategy scenario along with the other candidates from House Mars who passed the first test. There are twelve houses, and the name of the game is to conquer the playing field. Each house has different resources and fortifications and only those most organised and clever will win.
I have seen Red Rising described as The Hunger Games meets A Game of Thrones. I can absolutely see why. There are teenagers fighting in a large arena, quite possibly to the death, and their actions are broadcast out to the world, because the better you do at the Academy, the better a career you are likely to have in the future. If you survive the year, of course. Red Rising is dystopia turned up to eleven. Pierce Brown has clearly been influenced by a lot of other writers, but compared to the stuff Darrow has to go through in just the first half of this book, Katniss pretty much has a walk in the park. The world building is much more complex, the societal structures that are keeping our underdogs down are oh so much more devious.
Society is divided into colours, with the Golds at the top, who rule all. Below them are the Silvers, who provide the finance and the innovation. There are the Whites, who are priests and priestesses and the Coppers who provide bureaucracy. The middle castes are all genetically engineered to be the best at what they do, be it science, programming, medical care, piloting starships or providing security. Darrow and his family are the absolute lowest of the low. They are low-Reds, born under ground, living their whole lives without ever seeing the surface. Fed the lie that their lives may be hard and mostly thankless, but they are providing a valuable and vital service to enable the terraforming of the galaxy, not really given the chance to question whether things may be different.
This book is classified as Young Adult, but I can only imagine that the reason for that is that Darrow is sixteen when the book begins. There are some pretty advanced concepts presented in this book and a lot of references that readers should be familiar with to fully appreciate the scope of the story. There is also some quite frightful brutality in the book, much more so than in other dystopian series I can think of. It's here that the comparisons with Game of Thrones are obvious. I have seen the series criticised for its treatment of female characters and the accusation that Eo is fridged early on to set the plot in motion. I do see how that could be problematic to some, but personally, this never struck me as an issue. Clearly something huge had to happen to motivate Darrow to join the rebellion. Eo didn't get too much characterisation before she's killed off, but she purposefully chose to sing the song that had her sentenced to execution. She was a woman with agency and not just pointlessly killed to make the male protagonist feel sad. To me, the fridging of a female character is when she, though no fault of her own, usually just because she is the wife/girlfriend of the hero, is killed pointlessly. That isn't what happened here. Eo chose to become a martyr.
I have also seen some accuse Darrow of being a Gary Stu, which is just preposterous. While he is absolutely a Chosen One, who thanks to various factors in his upbringing has made him stronger, smarter and more resilient than most other Reds, exactly the reason he's chosen by the Sons of Ares for such a deep cover mission, he has a ton of flaws and frequently makes some pretty decisive mistakes. Obviously, he learns from each mistake and becomes more skilled and adapts his strategies as he goes on, but if he didn't, he would just be an idiot. Still, even as he keeps getting better at the game he's forced to play at the Academy, he puts his trust in the wrong people and keeps acting a bit too impulsively to ever really be called perfect. His flaws are part of what make him interesting.
This book is a bit slow to start, before Darrow discovers the truth about the society he lives in and is introduced to the resistance plot the Sons of Ares has devised. It also lags a bit in the middle, during the war games at the Academy. Some sections there were a bit of a slog to get through. Mostly, this is rather relentless action and momentum and I am deeply impressed with the scope and world-building. I felt somewhat exhausted at times, reading the book, which is why I've chosen to read fluffy romance between each of the books in the series. I need a palate cleanser before I dive into the dark and brutal world of the Red Rising universe once more.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.