Dystopian, Science Fiction
by: Pierce Brown
Series: Red Rising
I spent nearly all of 2014 hiding from a title that kept cropping up so often that there really was no hiding from it. In point of fact, I almost got tired of it long before I even picked it up. Red Rising was 2014’s book from nowhere. You couldn’t turn around in the Speculative Fiction community and not see it on this list, or that list, not even months after publication. My reaction to the publisher blurb was along the lines of ‘Not another teen dystopia. Please no. I refuse.’ Then it won the Goodreads Choice Award for First Novel, a hard achievement for a popular award done in November for a book published in January to win. Then I challenged myself to do comprehensive coverage of any books published in 2014 that won awards, starting with the Goodreads Choice Awards of this past November. To make good on my challenge… it was time for yet another teen dystopian novel. And man, did I sell this book short.
The Earth is dying. Darrow is a Red, a miner in the interior of Mars. His mission is to extract enough precious elements to one day tame the surface of the planet and allow humans to live on it. The Reds are humanity's last hope. Or so it appears, until the day Darrow discovers it's all a lie. That Mars has been habitable - and inhabited - for generations, by a class of people calling themselves the Golds. A class of people who look down on Darrow and his fellows as slave labour, to be exploited and worked to death without a second thought. Until the day that Darrow, with the help of a mysterious group of rebels, disguises himself as a Gold and infiltrates their command school, intent on taking down his oppressors from the inside. But the command school is a battlefield - and Darrow isn't the only student with an agenda.
I’m far from a newcomer when it comes to young adult literature. Back in the nineties when teen sections finally started showing up in libraries and bookstores, I was eagerly there to find books about people close to my age while still being complex enough to keep my attention. In the years since, I’ve never really gotten totally away from the genre. So I’ve read The Hunger Games Trilogy, the Divergent Trilogy, Twilight, and a few other blockbusters. I’ve read the great, the lackluster, and the just plain awful. After a bit of the same ol’ same ol’, I got bored. So when Red Rising came on the scene, I just couldn’t care. I should have.
My first mistake was thinking that this book really is Young Adult, despite the fact that it’s pretty consistently shelved there. Yes, protagonist Darrow starts the book at 16 and ends it at 18, which is the target age of the YA genre. That’s really about where the appropriateness of Red Rising to YA ends. (In point of fact, my library shelves this title in the adult section, as I found out when I went looking for it.) If you thought The Hunger Games was dark, violent, and shocking, you haven’t read anything yet. Red Rising is legitimately on the same level of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire for violence, although lacking in the doorstopper category. A lot of people die in this book. Moreover, many more are purposefully mutilated, there are a few rapes that happen offpage, and other worrisome fare that I will leave you to find on your own. YA stipulates an age range of 12 to 18, and I don’t know of very many twelve year olds ready to handle the grim snapshot of humanity present inside Red Rising’s pages.
That being said, Red Rising does have a streamlined simplicity to it that lends itself very well to being a book on the edge of the YA and adult worlds. For a similar reading level (though completely different in every other way) think of Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar. Adult books, but if your fourteen-year-old picks them up you maybe won’t have a heart attack. Part of that simplicity for Brown comes from his use of limited first person narrative. Brown limits his narration to only what Darrow knows, as he knows it. Of course, this seems self evident. But there are a number of modern authors who like to cut corners. Maybe they have multiple points of view, or they have characters who like to spill the beans. Not Brown. The only time a character takes Darrow aside to clue him in is when Darrow has to be clued in, or die from lack of knowledge. Moreover, Darrow isn’t the type of guy to give away his own game: his life depends on keeping secrets, so he keeps a few of them from the reader. Brown is a rare hand at narration, so that even information that may not necessarily need to be presented in a certain way is. Brown makes you read between the lines in the way that few authors even attempt, much less succeed at. Information is layered in tiny pieces, without nifty tags that say ‘remember this for later.’ As I came to the end of the book, I thought I had identified all those tiny pieces as they came together. But I wasn’t sure, so I turned around and immediately re-read the book after I finished it the first time.
On the other hand, Red Rising’s relative simplicity is, for me, one of its biggest downfalls. While I fully concede that with Del Rey’s choice to at least partially market this book to The Hunger Games fans and as a YA novel, that simplicity was necessary. However, there are weeks and even months that Darrow never discusses. Where Brent Weeks would narrate nearly every minute of Darrow’s adventures at the Institute, Brown zooms past some fairly pivotal moments that could have been used to great effect in character development. As I was really enjoying my read (both times through), I would have loved to see those periods of time where Darrow was struggling more internally than externally. I would have liked to see how his relationships developed with a few of the other characters. We have characters who stay loyal to Darrow for far longer than he thinks they would, who surprise him. That he doesn’t know why he inspires them is important, but at the same time it’s powerful to the reader for us to know why he’s so inspirational, why his friends stay loyal. While Brown succeeds in giving us an incredibly sympathetic protagonist who’s not a chore to read, there is room here for growth.
The final weakness of Red Rising is also another point that makes it marketable: it’s rather derivative. Surprisingly derivative for something that is ultimately so successful. You have the fights to the death/top of The Hunger Games. You have the Houses and sorting of Harry Potter. You have the deeply corrupt society of A Game of Thrones. Against this is a pretty standard backdrop of space colonization and terraforming. These aren’t new ideas, and weren’t new ideas when the three franchises I just listed first came out. The Hunger Games borrows heavily from Battle Royale, for example. That being said, Brown has somehow managed to stitch all of these old ideas together into something fresh, new, and extremely likeable. That isn’t an easy task. These things should feel old and tired, and depressing yawn of a book that is just another whateverthisis. I think that’s the true sign of how good a storyteller that Brown is: in his first published book, he’s managed to be new and exciting with tired scraps of leftovers. He’s like the fashion guru who manages to only dress out of thrift stores.
In the end, this is a really solid offering, with objectiveness leading me to give this book a 4.5 star rating, though it’s certainly one my favorite recent reads. I’m hoping that Brown finds ways to progress from where he’s at and grow, because damn, the books he writes then will knock my socks off. Even if he doesn’t, I’m still looking forward to getting my hands on Gold Son, book two of the trilogy.