Series: Red Rising #1
Published by Del Rey (Random House) on January 28th 2014
Genres: Young Adult, Science-Fiction, Fantasy
"I live for the dream that my children will be born free," she says. "That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them."
"I live for you," I say sadly.
Eo kisses my cheek. "Then you must live for more."
Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations.
Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.
But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.
Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity's overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society's ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies... even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.
Welcome to an uncensored version of The Hunger Games, where rape, mutilation and slavery are part of The Game. Red Rising is sci-fi meets Greco-Roman culture, combining advanced technology with the atmosphere of an ancient battle epos.
First off, if you don’t like goriness, don’t pick up this book. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many severed ears (this makes me think of George Weasley, which makes me think of Harry Potter, which makes me want to re-read the series. But I digress). I kid you not, this book is quite brutal. I looked up from my read once or twice and thought: “Is this YA? For real?” (Anyone care to enlighten me?). If it’s marketed as Young Adult, then I’d say it’s for adultier young adults, to be honest.
Second, the writing is weird. It’s good prose, I’ll admit as much. It knows its way around the purposeful use of adjectives and adverbs or how to form powerful sentences. But it is void of emotion. Perhaps it wants to emphasize the hardship of Darrow’s life or represent the inner hollowness he feels? I don’t know. What I do know: I felt detached from the characters due to the writing. I was not invested. Of course, I wanted Darrow to succeed but I wasn’t screaming when he screamed, crying when he cried, or laughing when he laughed. For the longest time, there was no connection – not until his first kill, where something suddenly snapped in him. The writing remained the same, of course, but I felt a bit more involved after that.
The outset is the following: Darrow, a lowly Red, must infiltrate the Institute (a school for Gold brats), rise to a high rank from where he can steer this ship called ‘oppression’ towards a cliff and shatter it to bits. Why not an outright rebellion, you ask?
“Because a rebellion now would be crushed in days,” Dancer explained. “We must take a different path. An empire cannot be destroyed from without until it is destroyed from within. Remember that. We’re empire-breakers, not terrorists.”
The beginning is rather slow and it is predictable what is going to set Darrow off, aligning his goals with those of a rising Red rebellion. Then things start to get mighty interesting and I liked where the story was going, because I thought there was going to be a lot of scheming and infiltrating. Wrong. Darrow enters the Institute, which is where you’re sorted into houses and then it’s basically a lot of teenagers slaughtering each other (anyone getting any Hunger Games vibes? Yes? Yes). From this point, the pace moves at a crawl’s speed again – alliance, betrayal, alliance, ambush, betrayal. To me, it was really repetitive. At least, until Darrow decides there are bigger fish to fry than a few ambitious students.
Any redeeming qualities you ask?
Yes, in fact, there are plenty.
✭ Darrow, the main character, was grand. Despite his low status and lack of education, he has street smarts. He’s got a temper but he can see things through. He’s loyal but he can stab you in the back if necessary. He thinks in long-term, not short-term. He also goes through a tremendous character development. Have I mentioned he’s smart as a whip?
“Tactics win battles. Strategy wins wars.”
✭ The supporting protagonists are insanely good. They are distinct, fleshed out personalities. And they grew on me with every battle. Mustang, the cunning thing. Roque, the poet. Sevro, the little Goblin (he just proves how little people can be badass!). Pax, the giant brute.
✭ Slow burn romance.
✭ The world-building is impressive and quite detailed. To the end, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around this book being sci-fi with all the Greco-Roman elements (the Golds’ names are Cassius, Tactus or Nero; their functions are Praetor or Proctor and so on). For me, this highly modern world and the old-fashioned society didn’t quite fit together, but it’s an imaginative construction nonetheless.
✭ While the basics of the plot (i.e. the students of the Institute fighting each other for fame and power) bored me, the bigger picture was intriguing. The game is supposed to introduce themes that are more complex than an ambush or a swordfight; the bribery and changing alliances involved in politics, the cheating and the scheming, the betrayal, and the construction of loyalty over mere obedience. The students are just pieces on a chessboard.
✭ Some of those plot twists had me go “AHHH”. Sly bastard, this Pierce Brown.
✭ The showdown is an action-packed blast. I love my characters cunning, patient, thinking their plans through before they strike. But when characters let their rage take over and mow down the fucking Olympus, I’m all in favour. In addition, the ending is not cliffhanger-y, thank you very much!
My feelings are in turmoil, and I will never be 100% sure about the rating I’m giving this. The writing was simply not for me and the pace was a little off in the middle parts, yet I’m still rather impressed with the world Brown has created and with the major developments in the book.
Therefore, I’m awarding this 4 generous stars: For Darrow and his pack, for the world-building, for the scheming and the plot twists, and for the gorydamn showdown. And you know you’ve spent too much time around a set of characters when you start cussing like them.
Should you pick up this book? If you have a very lively imagination and cannot handle violent movies like Gladiator and 300, then no, definitely not. Otherwise, if it sounds appealing to you, then by all means, yes.