Red Rising by Pierce Brown
|Book Name:||Red Rising|
|Formatt:||Hardback / Ebook|
|Genre(s):||Science-Fiction, Dystopian, Fantasy|
|Release Date:||February 2014|
Every year there are a number of debut authors that are so enthusiastically hyped by publishers that, as a reviewer, have you whispering a small prayer under your breath each time you receive a parcel: ‘please, Lord, let this envelope contain [insert name of book here]’. This year has been no exception; Den Patrick’s The Boy with the Porcelain Blade (Gollancz) and Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blade (Voyager) are just two examples of books that have received the ‘most exciting new voice in fantasy’ treatment, but the most intriguing one for me was Red Rising by Pierce Brown. I should fess up and admit that this is primarily because Red Rising had an advantage over the other two books: 1) I’d already read a number of very positive reviews from industry professionals and bloggers that I trust, and 2) I’d read that Universal Pictures had just won a bidding war that saw them throw over $1,000,000 at securing the rights to one day make a movie based on the book; both of which seemed to suggest that this really was going to be something special.
Before we begin, I’d like to warn you that because the book changes direction so sharply and that the second quarter of the book is so different from the first, and third, it is almost impossible to discuss and review Red Rising without including a number of minor spoilers. I’m going to do my best to keep away from the huge ‘shocks’ and ‘twists’, but please keep in mind that this is a book that I simply couldn’t do justice without giving away a few things.
Technically, Red Rising is a Dystopian Science-Fiction novel; it kicks off following a young man named Darrow who works as a miner on Mars. Darrow’s position is that of a Helldiver, he is one of the few guys skilled and brave enough to drive the huge mechanical machines that burrow deep into the rocky ground and open up massive tunnels. Once opened up, Darrel’s people can do the more intricate mining work, gathering precious elements that will one day allow Mars to be terraformed.
Life in these mines is hard, many of Darrow’s people have died as a result of exposure to deadly gases or explosions, but the Earth is dying and, as the holoCan screens continually remind the mining people (known as Reds), their daily sacrifice will ensure that the surface is one day habitable and able to serve as mankind’s new home. This is enough for Darrow, at least until he starts to notice that perhaps the class above them, the Golds who rule and have given the Reds this task, aren’t being completely honest about their predicament.
The Reds are extremely poor, but every month are given a chance to compete for a prize known as ‘the Laurel’. Basically, the team that mines the most hellium-3 over a quarter is treated to spending the next quarter with an abundance of food and comfortable living with various other luxuries thrown in. Since anyone can remember a specific group has won the Laurel – leaving many of the Reds, although not Darrow, believing that it isn’t possible to win. One month, Darrow – who still believes in the prize – is doing particularly well and when, in his mining machine, he reaches a point where there is an abundance of hellium-3, but also a 50/50 chance he’ll be blown up if he keeps digging, he decides his life is worth the risk. Somehow it pays off, they get the hellium-3, and Darrow assures everyone that they are to spend their first ever quarter year living in luxury. When the winning team is announced though, the same team as always is revealed to have won and it finally dawns on Darrow that the promise of ‘the Laurel’ is nothing more than a carrot being dangled on a stick.
This realisation prompts a succession of tragic events for Darrow. Events that will quickly escalate and see him hanged for the equivalent of treason. This is where the novel takes an interesting twist and begins its move from Science-Fiction to Fantasy. The Sons of Ares, a rebel group – referred to by the Golds as terrorists, reveal to Darrow the true extent of the Reds’ suppression and exploitation. If you’ve ever seen the movie Metropolis, the dynamics are very similar: the working race (the Reds) are being told that their work underground will one day make the planet livable and yet the planet was made habitable years ago, now their hard work contributes only to maintaining the perfect, luxurious and easy lives of the other colours (there are Browns, Pinks, etc), including many of the Golds.
There is an obvious political statement here. The Golds are the elite upperclass: the families who have money, who are sophisticated and cultured. Genetically they are gifted too, they have stronger bodies than the Reds, are much taller and better looking. To emphasise the extent of their differences and relationship: Imagine if the Elves from The Lord of the Rings one day decided to conjure up a cunning plan: they would convince the Hobbits that the world would end unless they went into Moordor and started mining ore, whilst really the Elves were just enjoying hanging out in the Shire and stockpiling their ore. Really though, we don’t need to look to The Lord of the Rings to see where Brown’s inspiration lies. Looking at my own country, Britain, the main political parties are split between those labelled as the rich aristocracy (Conservative) and the working class (Labour). The Conservatives, currently in Government, are often accused as wanting to suppress the prospects of the working class, whilst ensuring that the elite positions in businesses and establishments are taken up by their own and that their policies protect and benefit ‘their boys’ (the bankers, the CEOs, etc).
Anyway, the Sons of Ares tell Darrow that they’ve had enough and that it’s now time to begin working a plan against the Golds to take them down. Skipping forward a bit to avoid spoilers and some excellent worldbuilding, what basically happens is that the terrorist group genetically transform Darrow into a Gold and enlist him in one of the Gold’s elite training schools. This is where the most brave, strong, and intelligent come to learn the skills that have ensured the generation before them were manipulative enough and ruthless enough to condemn an entire race of people to living the life of slaves below the surface. Not everyone who enrolls on the program will survive and because it is already known that every child (for they are all aged around 16) is incredibly gifted, the program is more about proving themselves to be ahead of the rest by any means possible.
So, from about a third of the book through to conclusion, the book transforms into a hybrid version of Avatar crossed with The Hunger Games crossed with Ender’s Game. In his new body, Darrow and the other Gold children who made it through the initial brutal trials to earn their place on this next stage of the training program are split into teams and thrown into an arena. Like The Hunger Games, all technology is taken away from the students (all about 16) and, although they don’t have to kill, they must forcefully take over the numerous castles and then defend them against the other teams. What ensues is a game similar to that of the Battlerooms in Ender’s Game – the teams must use strategic thinking in order to take over and defeat the other teams. Unlike Ender’s Game though where things border on, but never go beyond, means that could – at a real stretch – be seen as justifiable (when you consider the threat is an alien invasion that would end mankind), the characters in Red Rising turn full-on animalistic.
Darrow realises that if he is ever to do any real damage to the Golds, he needs to earn a top position in their society and that means winning. However, Darrow soon learns that more students than he even imagined don’t see passing this test as enough, their families and potential sponsors are watching; so each and every individual playing the game wants to win too. Violence and murder is frowned upon by those overlooking the event, but not stopped. Therefore, if it is the difference between winning and losing, many will choose murder to win over a stalemate or losing through restraint – thereby condemning themselves to a lesser place in society once the game is done. Betrayal is a massive problem for Darrow as the story progresses, those who he thinks he can trust are fully capable of following him until the last minute before turning cloak and taking his achievements as their own.
So, the first thing I imagine you’re thinking is: “What you are actually saying, Marc, is that Red Rising is a rip-off of The Hunger Games and, to make things worse, it differentiates itself from The Hunger Games by drawing upon Ender’s Game and Avatar!?” In actual fact, I’d say that Red Rising‘s drawing upon of so many great science-fiction and fantasy novels is one of its greatest strengths. Pierce Brown is a fairly young author (below 25 at the time of publishing, I believe) and you can certainly see the influences of what he has grown up surrounded by. However, rather than thinking of this book as a copy, I came to see it as a kind of love-letter to the aforementioned novels. The ideas may be familiar, but their execution and effect offer something new and most enjoyable.
Perhaps a good cover blurb for this title would be The Hunger Games for Hunger Games fans who have grown up. The worldbuilding is extremely well done, but the political side of things is especially impressive and along with the more-detailed violence gears it towards an older audience. If I did have one complaint about Red Rising it was in its treatment of women and also young men. Women seem to be either ‘warrior women’ or ‘sacrificial women’ and, as seems to common in many fantasy novels these days, as soon as young men are put in front of a woman they want to forcefully have sex with them. I’m always a little uncomfortable reading about rape in genre novels, where it is not the main focus or vital to the story… This isn’t actually the case in Red Rising, it did come at a point in the story where ‘transformation’ and questions over forgiveness and control of ‘monsters’ were being explored – so it wasn’t completely out of context or there without reason. However, I did feel that it perhaps wasn’t given enough time and that – despite this being a barbaric society – everyone forgave and moved on from the act rather quickly.
Back to the positives though, of which there are so, so many: By choosing a first person narrator, who is certainly very-likable and justified in his ambitions, readers share Darrow’s journey from humble miner to becoming a competitor in a deadly game against individuals that are genetically his intellectual and physical and superiors. Will Darrow manage to keep up the act of being a Gold? Will he be able to pass the exam and gain large enough renown that he gets a place within the Gold elite? He can’t succeed without trusting and becoming friends with at least a couple of the other Golds, so what happens if he does succeed and does have the opportunity to take down their entire race? Can he betray those that ensured his survival?
The need to have all these questions answered, and more, will ensure that you tear through this book. The following gets said far too much: but this is a page-turner that once you pick up you’ll have real trouble putting down. I’d be most surprised if Red Rising doesn’t find a place on the majority of Bloggers’ Top 10 Best Books of the 2014 type lists… and can guarantee it’ll be near the top of Top 10 Debuts lists, without a doubt.