Review by Dan Hope
What do you do when your people are slaves, your wife has been executed by the aristocracy, and you’ve been sentenced to die, too? Infiltrate the upper crust of society and attend their battle school. That’s what.
Red Rising is a new science fiction novel by Pierce Brown scheduled to debut in February 2014.
(We received an ARC at the Nebula Awards with no obligation to review it, positively or otherwise.) In the mines of Mars, a depressed working class has been convinced that their hard labor will prepare Mars for terraforming so that people can emigrate from a dying Earth. These miners have never seen the surface and risk their lives in dangerous mining operations out of a sense of duty to their fellow humans. What they don’t know is that Mars was successfully terraformed and populated years ago, and an elite ruling class has sprung up on the surface. This group of strong, beautiful uber-humans are keeping it all a secret so that the miners, known as (surprise!) Reds, will continue risking their lives in poverty to benefit the society on the surface.
A color scheme is used throughout the book to delineate the various classes of humans. Democracy isn’t even an afterthought here. You are born into your occupation, and you live and die as your color. The Golds are at the top, the Reds are at the subterranean bottom, and there are plenty of colors in between: Pink prostitutes and escorts, Copper bureaucrats, Gray soldiers, Violet artists, White judges, etc.
The class division by color is actually a bit of a detriment to the book, as it comes off as one of the most implausible aspects of a book with plenty of sci-fi elements. That a class system could become so carefully matched to specific colors is the most unbelievable part. Fortunately, the book rises above it.
The main character, Darrow, is a Red miner who loses his young wife when she rebels against their Gold overseers. Then he loses his own life in a similar act of rebellion. To his surprise, he wakes up neither dead nor in the mines. He has been saved and recruited by a clandestine organization of rebels looking to upset the class structure and free the oppressed Reds. Darrow is transformed through a series of horrific surgeries into a beautiful and physically perfect specimen of a Gold and infiltrates their elite school with the intent of bringing down their society from the inside. What he doesn’t know is that the Gold ruling class is neither complacent nor naive, and in order to survive the school, Gold students must battle for their lives against each other. Once concerned only with infiltrating and destroying Gold society, Darrow quickly realizes that his first priority is staying alive.
The book’s biggest sin is that the first third deceives the reader. Once you think you’ve identified the feel and purpose of the book, it changes. In fact, the book covers enough territory for two or three smaller books. It starts off in the mines of Mars, where it has an Orwellian feel to it, as if Brown had mixed 1984 with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars novel. Then the novel almost becomes a Martian parody of cyberpunk as Darrow navigates the futuristic surface of Mars. Then he enters the battle school, and the feel of the book changes all over again. I was a little alarmed, at first. It felt like Brown was trying to create a Hunger-Games-at-Hogwarts book, full of teenage angst, dystopia, and boarding school antics. Possibly even with a little bit of Percy Jackson thrown in, based on the way Roman mythology plays into the school structure. Fortunately, Brown moves well beyond all that and redeems the story with a fascinating look at war, class struggle, and how they affects us as humans.
And really, this is where the story becomes its own. The beginning is interesting, the early middle is a bit meh, but then shortly thereafter, Brown accelerates into the real story and never looks back. The late start in the book is probably due to the fact that this is the first book in a series. Think of your favorite superhero movie, where the origin story delayed the action a little. Brown was operating under the same constraints when he created the book. Ultimately, the long lead-in to the real story is important for establishing the main character and making his motivations believable. But it takes some patience.
Don’t worry, though. Once this story gets going, it’s a great one. The book reaches a major milestone at the end, and it’s a satisfying conclusion, though it’s definitely just the beginning of Darrow’s journey towards liberation.
So if we’re going to draw parallels to other books, then I might as well say Red Rising is what the Hunger Games should have been.
Red Rising has better characterization than most of the novels I’ve referenced, particularly the YA novels, and Brown does an excellent job of making sure that decisions have consequences. He doesn’t shy away from them, either. There are parts of this story, particularly in the last half, that will make you cringe. And that’s a good thing. If you’re going to write about the horrors of war, you can’t gloss over the non-glorious parts of it (which, contrary to Romantic ideals, is 99.99 percent of it). What started off feeling like a YA sci-fi ripoff quickly shows that it’s serious and has something to say.
Throughout the novel, Brown keeps you thinking about the dynamics of leadership and wartime relationships. Even though you might expect a plot-line where Darrow begins to respect and care for some of his enemies, Brown does an excellent job of making the characters react believably, and he doesn’t take the situation lightly.
In short, it’s refreshing that this book takes its premise seriously, and that Brown isn’t shying away from the consequences of the plot.
So, yes, Red Rising seems a little derivative at first, but stick with it, because this story is so much more than the sum of its parts. And so much better.