Part Hunger Games, part Percy Jackson, and part Lord of the Flies, Pierce Brown’s first book, Red Rising, packs one helluva punch. As the acknowledgement preceding the story asserts, “you’re going to bloodydamn love these books.” If you like dystopians, this one wins.
About the book: Darrow is a Red. Reds are the lowest Colors in Society, slaves to the highColors for all intents and purposes. All his life he’s known only the existence of a mine worker on Mars. If he’s not precisely happy, he’s content to be with his family and wife, Eo, and knows his place as the Helldiver for his mining group of Reds. But Eo does something that turns his world upside down and starts a quest for vengeance that changes the entire course of Darrow’s life. The Sons of Ares need his help to disrupt the unfair order of Society, and he needs their help to find justice and do as Eo wished for him–to live for more. If the only way to best the Golds is to become one and destroy the system from within, that’s what he’ll do. Only from the inside will he discover whether his birth as a Red truly makes him inferior, or whether his career as a Helldiver was the best preparation for life as a Gold that anyone could’ve asked for. Golds have to attend the Institute and compete for prestige, but Darrow is one of few who seem to understand that the deadly test is so much more than a game. Then again, he’s got so much more at stake than his new Gold friends and enemies.
“I feel no pity for these students. They all murdered someone the night before, just like me. There are no innocents in this game.”
Best aspect: Darrow isn’t fighting for himself. Often in dystopian novels, the protagonist has been wronged in some personal way or has made a personal discovery that wakens dreams of revenge and a quest for their own safety and happiness. For Darrow, the choice is not made, it is thrust upon him. Eo is his motivation. She may be little more than a symbol to the reader, but she’s given Darrow a goal. He sees that revenge isn’t the answer, and the justice he seeks is not for himself–what he wanted is already gone. There are so many more layers and emotions to this story than I’ve fond in other dystopians because Darrow’s motivation is so complex. Not only is his hunt for justice more colorful because it’s someone else’s justice he’s seeking, but his reactions to the Golds are so much more intense. He has a deep hatred for the system of Society, but he sees all of the other characters as individual people–he has more sympathy for some of the Golds than some of the Reds and understands that even the Gold students competing with him at the Institute are forced through hardships or even deaths that they don’t deserve. Everything he’s been through has provided him with a uniquely objective perspective that makes him an expert at manipulating the rules and shifting the paradigm.
“Somehow she thinks we should pay, that the Proctors should come down and interfere. Most of the kids think that about this game…But the game isn’t like that, because life isn’t like that. Gods don’t come down in life to mete out justice. The powerful do it. That’s what they are teaching us, not only the pain in gaining power, but the desperation that comes from not having it, the desperation that comes when you are not a Gold.”
Although this is considered a YA book and Darrow is young and frequently admits that he’s still learning, Red Rising feels like a book for ages YA and above. A big part of the reason for this is the excellent world-building Brown demonstrates, making this a book for intelligent readers. Darrow mentions items and aspects of life that are completely alien to our present-day vocabulary on Earth. The reader needs to pay close attention and make inferences about what things are and how they function; you have to be able to fill in the blanks. I consider this a success in characterization–Darrow shouldn’t have to explain things he already knows, overthinking base knowledge of common details of his life on Mars, and the fact that he doesn’t gives the narration an impression of authenticity and reliability, as though we’ve been given direct access to his thoughts. If you’re not a reader who likes to piece a little of the puzzle together yourself, this may not be the book for you. Red Rising is not the type to pick over every detail and possibility until only the carcass is left, repeating itself in every possible variation and spelling out concepts better left to the imagination (ahem, Maze Runner, I’m looking at you). It’s a thinker, and it comes with its own language, leaving the reader to crack the code.
A note: A little background in Greek/Roman mythology comes in handy with this book. You don’t need to know much, but the life-or-death game at the Institute divides the students into Houses based on the characteristics of twelve well-known Roman gods, the Gold representatives of which watch the Houses clash from a floating Olympus. A little knowledge of the gods goes a long way in explaining some of the actions and mannerisms of the teachers and student participants. The addition of some mythological elements also allows for a comparison between Golds and gods that enhances the power struggle.
“Funny thing, watching gods realize they’ve been mortal all along.”
This book is also jammed full with big life ideas about power, human nature, what makes a life worthwhile, etc. but it doesn’t stop to examine each point in detail. It drops the hint and moves right along to the next plot-driven point. The book is definitely fast-paced and action-packed, but these little nuggets of wisdom and intrigue are what makes this book more than an addicting one-time-read. The worlds may be different, but the lessons apply. Darrow is a hero we can understand.
” ‘Steel is power. Money is power. But of all the things in the all the worlds, words are power. ‘ I look at him for a moment. Words are a weapon stronger than he knows. And songs are even greater. The words wake the mind. The melody wakes the heart. I come from a people of song and dance. I don’t need him to tell me the power of words.”
Darrow is smart. He is determined. He has relatively little regard for his own well-being. There is no doubt in my mind that he will take over the world and surprise them all.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book from the very beginning. Step aside, Hunger Games, there’s a new thrilling dystopian poised to set the world on fire. I’ve heard a lot of Red Rising reviews claiming that this book is too similar to The Hunger Games, but I beg to differ. There are some undeniable similarities, but I think they’re in areas that one book can’t claim a monopoly on–Brown’s world and characters are singularly different than Collins’, and knowledge of one doesn’t make the other any more predictable. I did love The Hunger Games when it was new, but not like this. This one was definitely a personal favorite, and I have already ordered the next two books in the trilogy. I can’t believe I didn’t hear of these books sooner–but I’m glad they were all published before I did. I don’t think I could survive an extended wait for the next book.
- There are several YA dystopian series that have been popular in the past few years that you’d really have to try not to know about at this point–I’m talking The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc. I want to point you toward my (previous) personal favorite and often underappreciated set in this group, the Uglies quartet by Scott Westerfeld. If you like YA dystopians and haven’t read these books yet, check them out.
- If you want something a little more adult, check out George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, first book: A Game of Thrones. This is another series that’s all over pop culture these days, but if you haven’t read them yet and enjoy Red Rising, you should. A lot of the world-building and characterization of Red Rising reminded me strongly of those techniques in A Game of Thrones.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley would be a fascinating read for Red Rising lovers who are also interested in classics–like the Colors, the Society of Brave New World has been divided into forced castes that determines one’s career and privileges. Like the Golds, the Alphas reign with supreme and unchallenged control in the name of progress and in hopes of creating a perfect society.
What’s next: Megan Miranda’s All the Missing Girls will be the focus of my next review. This novel calls itself a thriller/murder mystery told backward, an incredibly intriguing idea. Stay tuned to find out how effectively this technique works!
The Literary Elephant
Update: you can find my review of Brown’s Red Rising sequel, Golden Son, here.