I've barely started and I'm already finding this review hard to write - not for the usual reasons, though. It's hard because all I really want to be dI've barely started and I'm already finding this review hard to write - not for the usual reasons, though. It's hard because all I really want to be doing right now is reading the second book, Golden Son! I finished Red Rising three days ago and as soon as I could, I popped into Dymocks to get the next one. And ended up buying the third book as well! Yes, I loved Red Rising and I want to share the love.
Darrow is a helldiver, born into the Red mining clan of Lykos deep below the surface of Mars, hundreds of years in our future. The Reds mine for helium-3, needed in the terraforming process to make Mars habitable. They've been raised on the understanding that they are pioneers, sent out in advance of the rest of Earth's humanity to prepare Mars for habitation. Darrow is sixteen, married, fast and dexterous and, as a helldiver, more than a little arrogant. But despite the horrible conditions, short lifespan and never having enough to eat or any comforts, he's always believed. The discovery that it's all a lie, that Mars has long since been successfully terraformed and inhabited while the Reds continue to slave underground, is a shock.
Their society is one ruled by a hierarchy of colours. A post-democratic world, this new galactic empire is based on the idea of merit - though this is in itself an illusion. Everything is ruled by the Golds, and amongst the Golds, by the Peerless Scarred: Golds with a distinctive scar down one side of their face. They are the intelligent ones, and everyone else's life is cheap and of no consequence. Between Gold and Red are many other rungs, some of them genetically altered and born into a particular kind of service. It is not possible to move between colours. The Golds rule coldly, ruthlessly, with an inherent understanding of their own superiority.
When Darrow's wife is sentenced to death by the ArchGovernor of Mars, Augustus, it triggers a chain of events that see Darrow recruited by the resistance group, the Sons of Ares, who surgically - and painfully - transform him into a Gold. This is only the start: next he must pass the entrance exams to get into the Intitute, where Golds are trained to succeed and where a select few will become Peerless Scarred. Getting in looks easy compared with what Darrow will have to do once there, in a game of survival with the odds stacked against him.
Red Rising gets compared to Ender's Game and The Hunger Games, which is a fair comparison. However, I enjoyed this so much more. It has more substance than The Hunger Games, and while Brown also uses present tense, I found I could forgive it. As an adult dystopian fiction novel, Red Rising has the necessary qualities of the genre, but is far less dry and much more exciting than anti-utopian dystopian fiction (I am assuming, with confidence, that this will be a straight-up dystopian, with a hopeful ending at the conclusion of the series). The status quo is quite terrifying, so rigidly structured and, in many ways, brutal. The details with which Brown has rendered his futuristic, oppressive society make it feel very real. There are some aspects that bring to mind certain movies and science fiction TV shows - I've recently started watching Altered Carbon on Netflix and there are some subtle similarities, notably in terms of those with all the power and their ideas of entertainment.
The Golds also reminded me a little of the Masters in Ricardo Pinto's Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy. There, the rulers are white-skinned and wear masks of gold; for a lesser human to look upon their naked face is a death sentence. The Masters in Pinto's story are similar in temperament and superiority to the Golds.
These intertextual similarities don't detract from the strength of Brown's work, though, which is all in the ideas and the storytelling. Darrow is young, flawed yet deeply likeable, and his story is riveting. The 'game' at the Institute is a hard one - the several hundred 'students' are given a year to win a battlefield. They are not meant to kill each other but casualties happen and there are no repercussions. Cruelties abound, all amongst Golds. Thrust into the midst of this minefield, Darrow aims not merely to survive but to win. It is exciting, engrossing stuff, all against a background of injustice and repression. Darrow fights not only for himself or the memory of his wife, but all his people.
Red Rising is rich with an attention to detail that is often missing from modern dystopian stories, especially those in the Young Adult market. There's brutality here, torture and death and the author doesn't hold back from the violence. Coupled with the ideologies and sentiments that the Golds give voice to, the violence reinforces the problems with this otherwise hugely successful society. The feeling of being trapped is ever-present, echoed in the many real traps faced by Darrow, or which Darrow plans for others.
Quite often, I experience boredom when reading, which is why I hunger for romance - I want to feel something, and connect with the story and its characters. Too often, plot is not enough and can't hold me alone. But here, where there is no romance, and certainly no sexual tension, I didn't miss it at all, didn't need it, didn't want it. On the other hand, Brown isn't quite successful at constructing sexual tension when he's supposed to, as seen between Darrow and Mustang (a nickname). I liked Mustang a lot, just as I liked Eo, Darrow's fifteen year old wife (Reds marry young - and die young). Possibly, a balance between well-constructed plot, the ideas and the relationships between characters is not quite there. And as you'd expect, the resistance to oppression is a class-based one, not a gender-based one. It is mentioned early on in the second book that the Golds deliberately created Red society to be patriarchal, but where this falls flat is that the patriarchy is entrenched, and everywhere. But gender imbalance is not one of the cards on the table, here.
These quibbles aside, there is a lot to enjoy here. It is mostly plot and world-building that I enjoy, and Darrow himself, but a thoughtful examination of the problems with a meritocracy is always present. You can even look at this society as representative of our own hegemonic structure, though of course we don't use colours and supposedly we can raise ourselves up. A true dystopian novel always takes a current trend and extends or exaggerates it, showing what could happen if it's not nipped in the bud. Comparisons with the reader's world are part of the relationship between reader and narrative, in this genre. The plot has distracted me, but a critique on an aspect of our society is there, brewing. (If it's not, if it really is just plot in the end, like the Hunger Games, I shall be sorely disappointed!)
If you don't mind a bit of blood and guts and you're looking for an exciting story to sink your teeth into, I can't recommend Red Rising enough. ...more