Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Darrow is a Helldiver, one of a thousand men and women who live in the vast caves beneath the surface of Mars, generations of people who spend their lives toiling to mine the precious elements that will allow the planet to be terraformed. Just knowing that, one day, people will be able to walk the surface of the planet is enough to justify their sacrifice. The Earth is dying, and Darrow and his people are the only hope humanity has left.
Until the day Darrow learns that it is all a lie. That Mars has been habitable – and inhabited – for generations, by a class of people calling themselves the Golds. A class of people who look down at Darrow and his fellows as slave labour, to be exploited and worked to death without a second thought.
Until the day Darrow, with the help of a mysterious group of rebels, disguises himself as a Gold and infiltrates their command school, intent on taking down his oppressors from the inside.
But the command school is a battlefield – and Darrow isn’t the only student with an agenda.
Pierce Brown has created a stark vision of the future in Red Rising, his debut novel. Mars, and other inhabited worlds throughout our galaxy, is ruled by an elite class who have spent many hundreds of years creating a rigid culture where everyone is born, lives and dies in a predefined role. At the top are the Golds, the genetic crème de la crème, virtual living gods and the embodiment of perfection. Far below, on the bottom rung of the ladder, are the lowly Reds. They are the downtrodden masses, the miners and menial workers, largely ignorant of the huge lie that underpins their existence.
The Reds are viewed by most as little more than beasts of burden. From their ranks comes Darrow, a young man given the chance to rise above his station and try to right the wrongs that exist everywhere. A traumatic event in Darrow’s life opens his eyes to the larger world and a secret society tasks him with infiltrating the Golds as a 5th columnist. His goal? To bring down their rule from within. The hate that radiates from Darrow, and drives him to take on this likely suicidal mission, is palpable. In all honesty, knowing the reasons for his hate, I can’t say that I blame him. The Reds are being exploited at every turn and Darrow witnesses that exploitation at the most personal level. His rage is the fuel that fires his journey. There is an interesting evolution in his character as the plot unfolds. He experiences the slowly growing realization that it’s not just the Reds who are suffering. Irrespective of the colour caste someone is born into, they are as much a prisoner to their role as the Reds are. Darrow comes to appreciate the inequality that exists everywhere from the bottom right to the very top.
Brown ramps up the action, and the brutality that comes with it, once Darrow makes it out of the mines and to the Gold’s command school. As part of their training, teenage members of the Golds are forced to take part in an almost never ending series of tests, each seemingly more traumatic than the last. Taking their lead from ancient Earth cultures, there are elements of Roman and Spartan training that reminded me of 300. There is a test called The Passage which is particularly gruesome, even more so when you discover its true purpose. The lesson that all the students must learn? There’s no room for weakness when you are the leader of men.
A large chunk of plot takes place during the final test – an all-out war to determine the best of the best. Darrow and his classmates are pushed to the limits of their skills and endurance. During these protracted war games he begins to understand the mind set of the Golds, he even starts to grudgingly respect some of their decisions. Darrow rises to the top as a leader, nicknamed The Reaper, but at the same time another ascends, The Jackal. The final confrontation has everything you could possibly want from a science fiction thriller – action, betrayal, the odd futile gesture and even a vividly realised coup d’état.
The world building in Red Rising is what really sets this apart from any other books I’ve read recently, it’s just so immense. The scope of this novel is huge. Brown has obviously spent a great deal of time plotting out every aspect of the society he has created and it shows. Even the smallest inconsequential detail is cleverly thought through and fits within the structure of the plot. The different levels of society all have their place. The descriptions of the different colours, their roles, even the slang they use helps to flesh out the society
Readers are inevitably going to draw parallels between Red Rising and other modern dystopian novels like The Hunger Games. I’ve not read the latter so I can’t really make a fair comparison. That said, from what I have heard, it seems to me that Red Rising has a much darker tone and though Darrow is still is his teens I don’t really think Red Rising falls into the same Young Adult niche as The Hunger Games. If you liked The Hunger Games and don’t mind a little more adult language then I’m sure you would enjoy Red Rising as well.
Needless to say I absolutely despise Pierce Brown, he’s just so damned talented. He’s crafted a wonderfully compelling story that’s chock full of great characters, thought provoking ideas and some awesome action. It’s an impressive feat. There are a plethora of insightful moments woven into the fabric of Red Rising and he’s managed to execute them all flawlessly. The best part is that this is only book one, this is just the beginning. There will be another two books in this trilogy that we’ll all get to enjoy. I look forward to seeing the story move beyond the confines of Mars. There are multiple mentions of vast fleets of starships and I await Brown’s take on space travel and, hopefully, some battles as well. When it comes to science fiction I’m always on the lookout for novels that inspire a sense of awe. I want to finish a chapter only to realise that I’ve been holding my breath. Red Rising delivers everything that it promises and more. As I mentioned earlier the scope of this novel is huge and any sequel is only going to be bigger. Yes I’ll admit it, I’m hooked. When does the next book come out dammit?
Red Rising is published by Hodder and available from 28th January. Highly recommended.