Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations. Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children. But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow– and Reds like him– are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class. Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity’ s overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society’ s ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies . . . even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.
Thoughts: It’s not a concept that hasn’t been done time and again with the currently modern dystopian craze. A rags-to-riches tale combined with the overthrow of the ruling class, with teenagers as actors on the stage. I could give that bare-bones description and you could name me half a dozen dystopian novels that have been published over the past 5 years. When you get right down to it, the skeleton is pretty much the same on every one of them.
Which is why it’s so noticeable when one comes along that does more with the story that just let the skeleton support it. Brown slaps new muscle and mind onto the frame, creates a very intelligent story that stands apart from many others within the dystopian subgenre, and packs in enough action and development to keep readers interested and invested in the plot.
It starts at the bottom, as so many stories do, with Darrow, a Red miner on Mars whose life is going to be short and hard and that’s just his lot in life because he was born a Red, the lower caste in the colour-coded hierarchy of the future, and his duty is to mine Mars for the stuff that’s needed to terraform the planet for the higher (and “softer”) Colours. The seeds of rebellion are planted in his community, though he tries to avoid them when he can because he wants to provide for his wife rather than die a martyr. But circumstances beyond his control result in tragedy, and in Darrow being shoved from his red world into a Gold one, transformed into someone of the highest Colour so that he can infiltrate their Society and bring things down from the inside.
Brown gets serious love from me for the sheer amount of social and political commentary that runs throughout Red Rising. It’s obvious stuff, but rarely is it so blatant that you feel like you’re being beaten over the head with it. There’s the biting condemnation of capitalism, the way that the labouring class risk much to work to support their families and provide profit for those above them, while their bosses throw about propaganda about how society couldn’t function without standing on the backs of the strong ones at the bottom; the way those at the bottom often don’t dare rebel because rebellion means suffering for those they care about most. The majority of the book, the ‘game’ at the Institute, that parallels man’s cultural evolution from those with few resources and tribal mentalities to conquerors who eventually rise up against silent gods. I can’t count the amount of times I had to stop reading for a moment to really contemplate the implications of what Brown was writing. It’s thought-provoking stuff, excellent for those who enjoy the dystopian subgenre but want something with a bit more meat o sink their teeth into.
It does, however, suffer from many of the same limitations I find in a lot of dystopian novels. Not inherent to dystopian fiction, specifically, but more in the way that such stories tend to be told. The first-person narrative throws the reader into the thick of the action (and believe me, there’s plenty of it), but it lessens the impact of the scenes where Darrow is expected to die. The first such scene made me wonder if I hadn’t been reading a sort of extended prologue and the rest of the book was going to centre around a different character. The second of Darrow’s death scenes just didn’t impress me much; you knew he was going to live, because there’s the rest of the book to deal with.
In fairness, though, neither of those scenes were really about tension and action, even though the second came after a fight scene. They were about emotion, about loss and betrayal, and for that the first-person viewpoint worked extremely well. To see a man in Darrow’s situation encounter and sink into death was powerful, a transformative event, and while there was no tension and wondering if he’ll make it out of that situation, I found the scenes quite memorable. Though really, two death scenes in a single novel is one too many. One is poignant. Two is just kind of cheap.
Many have compared this novel to a sort of darker version of The Hunger Games. I can see that comparison. The book actually got less interesting for me as it went on. What the survivalist warfare represented was very interesting, certainly, but the longer it pressed on, the more I started to feel like what had really hooked me on this book to begin with, Darrow’s early life as a Red and the tragedy of his wife, was just a long prelude to all this fighting, necessary set-up to what Brown really wanted to write. Which is fine if that’s also what you want to read, and it would be hard to shorten that section of the book without skipping over key events, but I wanted to get back to Darrow’s growth, not his strategies. Personal opinion, though, and your mileage may vary.
I want to read more. I want to revisit this future that Brown has set up, and I want to see more of how it will all play out, and I want to dive deeper into the allegory and metaphor that Brown so masterfully created in Red Rising. The most interesting aspects of the story were not what was happening, but what they represented, and it’s hard to find YA dystopias that dip beneath the surface of things like that. I was very much impressed with this book, far more so than I expected, and I know already that it’s going to be a book I’ll read again, probably with pen and paper in hand so I can make some notes as I go. It’s intelligent, it’s full of action, plenty of intensity with a relatively diverse cast of characters, and there are plenty of hints dropped throughout that things are far more complex than they appear on the surface (and things already seem decently complex). I highly recommend Red Rising to those who are burned out on YA dystopias, because it’s the kind of book that will revitalize things and make you reconsider what the genre really has to offer.
(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)