Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Rating 5.4/10
A book that deserves all the hype it has been receiving.

A Recommended Book of the Month

I was quite eager to try Red Rising, partly because of Ryan's review, and partly because I loved the idea of combining dystopian fiction with a science fiction setting, particularly a setting with some rather interesting and colourful themes, (colourful in more sense than one). The setting indeed is one of the book's strongest points, since Brown does create a world which is bright and fascinating to explore.

The book is set on Mars of the future, where humanity is split into several different castes, the arrogant and almost godlike Golds at the top who hold power, the Greys who provide security, the Pinks who provide pleasure services to name but a few. Indeed, straightening out all of the functions of the various colours, and seeing how individuals from each colour interact within the society is interesting in itself.

At the bottom of the pile are the Reds. While high Reds serve as menial labourers in the cities, low reds are miners, supposedly mining helium three to terraform Mars.

Though the book is mainly concerned with the machinations of the Golds, and in particular the academy where elite Golds prove themselves, what we see of the society is genuinely compelling, particularly some of the more subtle control methods such as having a laurel which would be awarded to the most hard working shift of Red miners, providing extra food and luxuries, but which is always won by the same group so that all of the miners hatred is focused only on that group rather than on the larger unfairness of their situation.

We also learn rather too much about the philosophy of the Golds, their rule through might makes right and family and social loyalties, and in particular how their byzantine political family games are viewed by other colours. I also admire the way that Brown used technology in the book, imagining a world where for purposes of prestige and power formal duels with blades occur, but making those blades morphing blades known as razors, and where flight on grav boots is as common for the higher colours as walking, indeed the way he represents the monolithic nature of the society and the Golds as a near godlike other species is an interesting on running theme.

As the book begins we follow Darrow, a sixteen year old Red who is desperate to earn the laurel. This brings me onto the first of the book's major problems that of character, and the biggest one of them all Darrow himself. Even as a lowly Red, Darrow is not just a simple miner, but a helldiver (yes even his basic job title sounds awesome). This apparently not only means manning a drill, but also for some reason gives him amazing reflexes and strength, attributes which he's quick to tell us all about himself. Indeed, the book is written in first person, and one of the most major problems with Darrow is that both in how he talks about himself and how he interacts with others, I found him to be endlessly arrogant, occasionally puerile, perpetually smug, probably the most irritating example of a cocky teenaged boy you could imagine. There is a level where writing a character as tough, sassy or angry can tip into making that character dislikeable, and Brown didn't only cross that limit with Darrow, but actually crossed it so far I was actively wanting him to fail just to learn a little humility. This problem is only made worse by the fact that Darrow is endlessly awesome at everything, and even when he does fall foul of circumstances, his constant rage against the society and belief in his own badassary never takes a knock, meaning his failures have little to no impact upon him since his attitude never softens.

I have observed before that when authors deliberately write their main character as profoundly unpleasant, they often populate the rest of the book with scumbags too, and make their villains so insanely nasty that they make Darth Vader seem like Santa Claus. This is very much the case here, even Darrow's wife Eo who he supposedly loves mainly serves as a symbol of revolution and a focus for his ongoing teen rage, and their banter rather than reading as two people who love each other seems to be more a matter of exchanging snarky quips, likewise, while Darrow supposedly loves his family, rarely if ever do we see this love in evidence, because frequently Darrow's irreverence and aggression actively contradicts his supposed love, for example at one stage in the book he complements his uncle for "making him a man" (whatever that is supposed to mean), and yet whenever we saw him and his uncle interact he was nothing but hostile.

Brown's style indeed is one of the book's more problematic aspects, since while he undoubtedly does have a knack for fulsome and somewhat overblown descriptions of quick, pacy action sequences or epic moments, his ability to actually describe how decent human beings connect or even talk was severely lacking, despite a tendency to justify himself with overly long emotional sermons on what Darrow feels about given situations, (mostly rage and lots of it).

Of course, Darrow does have perfectly justified reasons for feeling angry, however having a character in one emotional state and being forced to constantly read about that state is actually less, as opposed to more effective, indeed we might feel more sympathy for Darrow's rage and desire for revenge if we actually saw him feel something different from time to time, or at least that his many trials actually affected him. Similarly, unless epic triumphs are built on equally epic failures, or on characters whose human frailty is too apparent, simply reiterating how fantastic the main character is or how awesome his opponents are just before he wins rings extremely hollow. This is why I disagree with Ryan's contention that the odds stacked against Darrow justify his invincibility, after all it doesn't matter if the main character must fight a thirty foot tall fire breathing mecha zombie dinosaur skeleton necromancer if we know by virtue of being the main character he will succeed, and the fact that he's constantly telling us that he will succeed because he's so great makes him just plain annoying.
 
One thing I can credit Brown for, is that the pacing of the plot is for the most part very well done, even if the attention some individual incidents receive is a little uneven, for example the first chapter begins with a detailed action sequence of Darrow attempting to mine more ore while recklessly risking a gas explosion, yet the point when he is convicted of a crime and faces actual death is passed by in only a few short paragraphs.

A third of the way through the book, Darrow is genetically modified into a Gold so that he can infiltrate the higher reaches of society on behalf of the resistance movement. While again his interactions with the resistance and their people are all based on Darrow's instant animosity, I did find what we knew of Gold society and philosophy here interesting to explore, particularly with its overtones of the Roman ideal of strength above all and family honour. That being said, the fact that Darrow is modified genetically to become nearly superhuman did not sit well since having yet more instances of fuel for Darrow's arrogance was certainly far from welcome.

The main plot of the book began a third through when Darrow, along with many other teenaged Golds attends the institute for advancement, an advancement that takes the form of a Hunger Games style battle for survival in a wilderness area between various houses each named after a Roman god (Darrow is of course in house Mars).

Again, on the one hand the way that Brown uses advanced and somewhat mysterious technology to ape the powers of the gods, with the proctors of the various houses each taking on a deity's appearance and somewhat of their personality makes for a compelling setup, particularly given Darrow's own relationship with the untrustworthy Fitchner, proctor of House Mars. I also very much liked the style and rules of the game, with each house possessing a castle and some resources based on their god's personality, and the object to take each house's castle and standard and make their people slaves.

The problem again here however, is that Brown's inherent focus on the nastiness and violence of the situation, not helped by Darrow being less than likable actually slowed the plot. While on the one hand, the conflicts about who would be leader, the backstabbing, mistrust and inability to cooperate did make for an interesting setup, Brown's inability to write human characters or have any conflicts between people who weren't inherently arsy meant things felt far more drawn out than they actually were. Indeed, it amazed me that only three quarters of the way through the book did Darrow actually realize that being a leader who lead by force and slavery wasn't a good idea and he'd be better off being leader by acclamation, (a realization James Dashner makes in the first chapter of Maze Runner given a similar isolated group of teenagers). I was also frustrated that when Darrow does become leader, his examples of wise leadership aren't so much being reasonable to others, as simply having everyone acknowledge how personally awesome Darrow himself was and follow him with amazing loyalty, even giving him his own super moniker of "The Reaper".

I will say Brown does manage to keep you guessing as to the course of the contest and the backgrounds of some secondary characters, particularly with the escalating levels of technology, however again, the fact that Darrow is so invincible, even when he does suffer misfortune or betrayal I found myself hardly able to care. Also while Brown does set up his plot nicely so that you don't know which characters will be safe and which will die, very few of the characters actually made an impression on me due to Brown's constant attempt to portray them as endlessly sassy, for example one occasion when Darrow rages at the fact that a loyal friend was stabbed comes only thirty seconds after that loyal friend talks quite literally about urinating on the enemy, since oh yes, while not as bad as some authors Brown isn't afraid to plumb the depths of unpleasant bodily functions to show how sophisticated his characters are.

I will say in fairness to Brown there are one or two attempts at touching character growth moments, and for all Darrow's constant invincibility and rage Brown does have Darrow remember and reflect upon what has happened to him, however these are so few and far between and so clumsily handled that they really feel out of place, for instance a discussion of whether one character should attempt to kiss a girl which seems to be lifted straight from a teen school drama occurs just after a bloody execution.

This contest section of the book also brings me onto another problem, that of gender. Brown of course does represent girls as tough, martial, and just as capable of backstabbing and violence as boys, right up until rape is required in the plot when girls instantly revert to helplessness, and of course Brown only represents rape as a thing men do to women. This is an aspect of the book that Brown handles very badly. While he represents the world of the contest freely as one of torture, murder and humiliation, rape is still held as the worst of all possible crimes and one which awesome leader Darrow does not approve of (quite a contrast to Darrow's stance on violence or even some forms of torture). While there is an attempt to tie this back to the Gold society, trying to suggest the shock people feel is Golds being treated like Pinks, the way Brown decries rape while quite calmly having the supposed good guys engage in torture and murder is lopsided to say the least.

I would be the last person to dismiss the seriousness or terrible consequences of rape, however the special place Brown gives it among other atrocities simply did not ring true to me, particularly with how it affects his female cast, since every time rape is mentioned, female characters instantly become damsels.

One scene indeed featured Darrow returning to camp to find a friend of his, someone previously shown to be amazingly tough, captured by two random boys, stripped to her underwear and gagged like a fifties B movie heroin, something not helped by the fact that said girl gets captured and ransomed not long afterwards, a fact the girl even observes herself though not to any changes in her status unfortunately. Again this read to me far too much of Brown trying to make Darrow awesome by having him play the extremely standard male hero, (there is even one section where he storms an enemy castle and enslaves the girl who is their cook, carting her off across his shoulder caveman fashion).

While Brown's ability to pace the plot goes well, his fulsome and over inflated action language does run into some rather basic consistency gaffs. For example in the above mentioned rescue scene, Brown forgets that the girl is gagged so that she can whisper dramatically to Darrow, on another occasion a character who was said to be wearing bear skins because he was too big for wolf skins to fit was described later as wearing wolf skin, and Darrow lives for months with one person without asking her name. Even some of his basic plot elements suffer consistency problems, for example in the early part of the contest a large deal is made of the fact that Darrow finds matches and so can light cook fires, a skill others don't have, yet everyone (Darrow included), seems quite able to quickly and easily hunt, skin, and butcher forest animals or prepare food from raw ingredients in medieval kitchens with no trouble. Even before the contest begins, a scene in which Darrow's wife is able to sing a song of resistance while she is being beaten simply does not ring true since for all Brown's effusive talk of the awesome beauty of her song, nobody while being bent over and whipped should physically be able to sing, much less sing beautifully.

Another thing I found distinctly odd, and a little too obviously a sop to possible accusations of racism was the fact that though Brown has a society based on colour, the soldiers who by his system should be referred to as "Blacks" receive the name of Obsidians, or occasionally (in a rather clumsy Game of Thrones homage), Crows.

While Brown does maintain tension towards the end of the book, he also unfortunately seems to change his momentum, since in an effort to up the odds against Darrow he actually gives Darrow rather too much power, for example letting Darrow take out people with advanced weaponry, although advanced weaponry which still doesn't involve projectile weapons. Also Brown's style starts becoming more than a little tripped up with epic high fantasy stock descriptions, from describing a tower as leaning like a drunken wizard, to talking about Darrow's army units "smashing against the right flank" of the enemy. I love epic battles in fantasy as much as anyone else, however epic battles all based around the charisma of the leader, where the army simply becomes a loyal adjunct to the main characters' power I find quickly become stale. Even Brown's depictions of shocking levels of violence grow cursory to the point that towards the end the crucifixion of two characters is mentioned in passing.

While the book's final question, that of possible betrayal is an interesting one, the end largely slows down for again more sermons on Darrow's rage and his desire to take down the society, sermons whose content we'd already heard far too much previously, and I confess I was actually quite relieved to reach the final cliff-hanger.

My lady and I frequently disagree about George R R Martin, since my lady accuses him of delighting in violence and superfluous character killing for its own sake. While I still don't share her view of Martin, this description very much describes Red Rising, a book which is so packed with action, attempts to shock with violence and main character awesomeness that it doesn't stop to breathe or give us any real character decency to hang its epic moments on. Red Rising strikes me as a book with extremely good intentions. Brown's ability to create a colourful and vibrant future society and hammer out a pacey unpredictable plot, with characters ever ready to backstab is extremely good, as are at least some of his pyrotechnics and action sequences. However the annoying and ever successful Darrow, the inconsistencies, and the constant, almost pointless stream of violence against characters who are nothing but universally snarky simply make this one rather thin over all.

The YA dystopian genre has brought us some amazing things. I love the mix of savagery and humanity in Collins' Hunger Games, and the evolving and complex world of Dashner's Maze Runner. Set against those efforts however, Brown's world with irritating characters, at times loose editing, invincible yet dislikeable hero, slightly over inflated writing, occasional dips into the puerile and impractical amounts of violence just does not stack up.

Against my better judgement I probably will go on to the next two entries in the series, and hopefully if Brown can learn that people in books should actually behave like decent human beings, and that epic success needs to be earned matters should improve, but as a basic experience Red Rising is I'm afraid not something I would recommend.
Dark, 3/10 (I want to kill Darrow in the face!)

Red Rising by Pierce Brown is the first book in a new sci-fi trilogy that seems to be taking the world by storm. I had been avoiding it because of the hype, and because friends were pressuring me to read it, but I'm glad I relented and gave this book a try. Red Rising is one of the most gripping stories I have read in recent memory, and Pierce Brown is a sadist who is unafraid to kill the characters you fall in love with. If you are looking for a comparison, I would say that this book is like Ender's Game meets Game of Thrones meets Final Fantasy 7.
 
The story is set in the far future, where a space faring society have thrown away democracy and separated people into colour coded castes based on the roles they are required to fulfil. There are many different colours, from the Golds who are rulers of all, to the Greys who provide security services, to the Pinks who provide comfort and pleasure services, and more. The story follows Darrow, a Red, who lives under the Martian surface mining for ores that can be used to terraform planets and moons. The Reds are the pioneers and have been promised that once the terraforming has been completed, they will be greatly rewards for their services, but they have been mining for a long time now, and the work is extremely dangerous. After a great tragedy befalls Darrow he is brought to the surface where he learns that the Reds are not pioneers, they are slaves, and he is given an opportunity to fight for their freedom.

Red Rising is a story that is slow to start but fast to finish, as Brown spends the early chapters setting the stage for what is to come. It is hard to talk about this book without spoiling many of the early suprises, which I think speaks to size of the journey that the main character Darrow embarks upon. While Darrow begins as the Helldiver for an underground Martian colony, he spends the majority of the book fighting for survival at a cutthroat academy, looking for opportunities to demonstrate his talents, and boy are those talents considerable. This is not a survival of the fittest story, as many of the fittest characters never make it to the end; this is a survival of the ruthless, survival of the deceptive, and survival of the resourceful story. It is likely that at least one of your favourite characters will die, and it looks like Brown has continued the trail of death and destruction in the second book.

Darrow is a brilliant young man, demonstrating capacity beyond what a Red is supposed to demonstrate. Many reviewers have taken issue with Darrow and are quick to label him as a Mary Sue / Gary Stu type of character who is brilliant at everything and almost unstoppable. I don't see Darrow this way, and I think Brown clearly establishes that while Darrow may be a skilful man, he has many issues and weaknesses that undermine his skills. I also think that Brown has significantly stacked the odds against Darrow to the point where any slip-up has severe consequences, and Darrow seems to slip-up all the time. I enjoyed Darrow's transition from underdog to dangerous predator, and I appreciate how precarious Darrow's position is, because Brown clearly demonstrates throughout the book how easy it is for the mighty to fall.
 
One last point I want to touch on is that I was rarely able to predict any outcomes throughout the story, with Brown keeping me on my toes for the entire duration. Brown manages to put Darrow into situations where there are multiple decisions available, with each decision having a different but equally appealing outcome, with a different but equally unwanted set of consequences attached. I was rarely able to determine with any certainty which option Darrow would make because you could easily justify why each option would be the appropriate one. I liked that there was no safe option, that there was no clearly advantageous option, and that a positive outcome relied on Darrow and team being able to effectively respond to any complication brought about by his decision making. This continues all the way up to the final page, and I can only applaud Brown for being able to pull it all together in such a coherent and impactful way.
 
Red Rising is a book that deserves all the hype it has been receiving. It is not a perfect book, the start can be hard to get into, and parts of the final act seem to be unnecessary at best, but there is so much awesome in this book that I find it easy to look past the faults. Red Rising is a book that has stayed with me for days after I finished reading it, and it has been a long time since a book had such an impact on me.
Ryan Lawler, 9.7/10

This Red Rising book review was written by and Ryan Lawler

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Red Rising reader reviews

from England

2-stars

Baffled by the hype for this; it's a cheesy cartoon, predictable, and full of well-worn tropes. What seems to be dazzling readers is the sheer violence and TV level pacing.

from America

10-stars

Amazing storytelling and fantastic worldbuilding add up to a compelling story.

5.8/10 from 3 reviews

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