Review: Red Rising

Red Rising by Pierce Brown
382 pages
Publisher: Del Rey (Random House), 2013
Genre: Science fiction
Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I won’t be rereading this one, or continuing the series.

Reviewed by Pete

Red Rising is set in the distant future, in a time when humanity has colonized the other planets of the solar system and has created different “colors” of humans that are different on a fundamental, genetic level. Sixteen-year-old Darrow is a lowRed, the lowest of colors, with Gold being the highest. He spends his life deep under the surface of Mars working in mines to provide for his wife, Eo. After several unfortunate turns of events, Darrow is hanged before his town, but he finds himself reborn on the surface of Mars, rescued by a dangerous group of revolutionaries. They put him through extensive surgery to make him appear as a Gold and manage to sneak him into the most prestigious military academy, where he will compete in a massive wargame with other Gold teenagers.

The premise bears an undeniable resemblance to The Hunger Games (as a quote boasts from the back cover), or to Battle Royale, however you want to look at it. At times you can feel Brown trying to differentiate his world and his story from The Hunger Games, but I was never able to stop comparing the two. The games, the game masters, the caste-like system—it’s too familiar, and Red Rising does not succeed in finding its own style, or its own plot.

Though there are fewer children murdered in this book, Red Rising feels more violent than its battle-arena predecessors, and I think this is a good thing. I found The Hunger Games a bit too disassociated from its own violence. Brown doesn’t glamorize the killing, for the most part, but this is still an action novel at its heart, and Darrow is constantly pulling off action-movie stunts.

Darrow has wasted the first sixteen years of his life for nothing and has watched loved ones die again and again, so it’s hard not to have sympathy for him at the start of the book. But as the story goes on, he becomes a sort of charming, muscular, killing robot who I could not connect with. He is endlessly arrogant, and he rarely loses fights or fails to do physical feats. By the last third of the novel, I found myself wondering if it were possible for any of his plans to go wrong. Things do go wrong, of course, but it’s never surprising when they do, and the book’s climax feels like it exists to convince me that Darrow is a truly glorious being who will ascend beyond the clouds of the heavens and can do no wrong.

The initial premise of “genetically structured hierarchy” is never examined in any interesting way. We’re shown that Golds are physically and mentally superior to all other colors, but Darrow never considers the danger and insidiousness of this system and how it affects Reds, his people. After the first third of the book, this theme is cast aside. I hope it’s looked at more closely in the next two books, but I’m not going to read to find out.

When an author doesn’t show me that a character can fail, and when a character’s primary weakness is “anger,” I have a hard time finding a human element in the story. Unfortunately, the characters that surround Darrow are equally plain and all seem to speak with the same voice.

Red Rising gives us hints of something deeper hidden in the futuristic world of Mars, but in the end, it’s just a long montage of bloody action sequences that add up to a slow and predictable story that we’ve all heard before.

Also: Having a character point out that she hates being one of those icky “damsels in distress” doesn’t mean she wasn’t a damsel in distress—it just draws attention to her damselness.

Also: Getting run through with swords all the time results in injuries that can permanently damage a person. This stuff doesn’t just heal within a few days. No one is injured in Red Rising until they’re dead.

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