Red Rising: An engaging debut

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Marion’s new review:

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsRed Rising by Pierce Brown SFF book reviewsRed Rising by Pierce Brown

In Pierce Brown’s debut novel, Red Rising, humanity lives in a strictly hierarchical society, with the various castes marked by colors: Golds at the top, Reds at the bottom, Pinks for pleasure, Yellows for bureaucrats, etc. Darrow, a young Red, who mines beneath the surface of Mars for Helium-3, has always accepted the hierarchy as it has been drummed into him, until events cause him to see things differently. Eventually, he is set on a path whereby he will seek to undermine the Golds’ power and spark a revolution of Reds. If, that is, he can stay true to himself and his mission even as he infiltrates the Gold society. Because of the many twists in the novel, that pretty much all I’m going to say about plot.

Usually I like to start with the positives of a novel. But despite the fact that I’m pretty sure Red Rising will end up in consideration for my top ten list this year, I’m going to start with the negatives.

First is that in order to get Darrow into the Gold society, the novel requires some hefty suspension of disbelief. I think Brown understands this, as he spends a lot of time covering the preparation of Darrow to enter Gold society, which involves bodily reconstruction and cultural education/re-education. I appreciated the time spent, but still have to admit if I thought too long or hard about what Darrow was doing — the gap in cultures he was trying to span in a relatively short period of time — it was hard to imagine how he was pulling it off. Luckily, the novel’s brisk action soon had me moving too fast to stop to think about it, save on a few particular occasions. I’m guessing most people will go through that same process: “Wait, he could never pull of the . . .  oh look — pulse swords and horses!”

Second, several plot moves, especially early on, are predictable, and even slightly experienced readers will recognize several common YA/Dystopia tropes, as well as find some comparisons to other works running through their heads, most notably THE HUNGER GAMES, The Lord of the Flies, HARRY POTTER, and Ender’s Game, as well as more classic dystopias such as 1984 and Brave New World. That said, the predictability lessens greatly after the opening section of the book. Brown tosses in several entertaining plot twists, and any lingering predictable events add to the tension rather than diminish it, as the reader waits for the shoe to drop. The tropes are well handled, and Brown at least avoids the one I most dreaded — the seemingly requisite love triangle. Similarities to other works are either superficial, bent in original fashion, or fondly pointed to, as with several sly references to several of the listed books as well as others (keeping an eye out for such nods will make for a good game as you read). I’d also argue that Brown’s version of similar storylines, at least in comparison to the other YA books, is generally richer, more sophisticated, and often darker, not in a gratuitous way but in a way that lends a greater depth to the reading experience.

Female characters are a bit in short supply, at least as major players, with only a few exceptions, one of which is more of a plot-moving character who doesn’t get a lot of page time, while another is mostly a plot antagonist whom we also don’t spend much time on. The third and most interesting one doesn’t appear for a long time, and I wish we had gotten some sharper characterization for her, though I assume that will come in the sequel. And while these three women are portrayed as quite strong, others are presented in what have become familiar plot points: victims or potential victims of rape and goads to male action due to being put at risk.

So the first two problems are mostly counterbalanced — the required suspension of disbelief by the book’s action and pace, the familiar tropes/influences either by being handled in richer and/or more original fashion or by Brown’s winks and nods to said influences. The female characterization, one hopes, will deepen as we move forward.

With Red Rising’s few flaws canceled out, what remains are its many strengths. As mentioned, the action, especially as one moves past the training stage, is compelling, and its pace and activity accelerate in the last quarter of the novel, leading to a strong finish.

Darrow is a richly developed character, one Brown really takes his time with. Darrow is not all that likable at the start, but as the book progresses, as his character deepens with experience, the reader’s views toward the character deepen as well. Like all good characters, he contains multitudes and he struggles to not suppress those multitudes but to integrate, to make himself whole and in control of himself:

I know I am impetuous. Rash. I process that. And I am full of many things — passion, regret, guilt, sorrow, longing, rage. At times they rule me, but not now. Not here.

He moves forward in fits and starts, sometimes sliding backwards, sometimes learning his lessons quickly, sometimes slowly. He does bad things and good things. He is driven but is also lost at times. Like the best undercover agent stories, he has to guard against empathizing with those he is trying to defeat, or worse, becoming just like them:

I forget that Cassius, Roque, Sevro, and I are enemies. Red and Gold. I forget that one day I might have to kill them all. They call me brother, and I cannot but think of them in the same way.

And yet, in some ways, guarding too much so against those possibilities means to become cold and heartless — in other words, in trying to not be one of them, he runs the risk of becoming one of them. He is warned early on that he will be a good man who must do bad things, and this is borne out again and again. Often, there are no “good” choices, and the reader cannot help but be moved by those moments when Darrow agonizes over what he must do, or over what he has already done. Just as the reader also falls into the same problem as Darrow — empathizing with or liking those Gold bastards, even as we root for Darrow to take them down.

Many of the side characters, though not as detailed in development (tough to do from Darrow’s first person POV), are also nicely rounded characters, and with the male characters in particular, Brown does more than simply create interesting characters; he places them in the context of intriguingly real relationships — ones that change, that have highs and lows, that feel true to life. He does a nice job of portraying both friendship and competitiveness, hatred and jealousy, shame and guilt. Outside of Darrow, the most intriguing character was an outlier Gold nicknamed Goblin, and I hope we’ll see more of him in the sequels.

While the book can simply be enjoyed for its surface pleasures — tightly plotted action, stimulating plot twists, set fight and battle scenes mixed in with more intellectual discussion of tactics and strategy — the thematic depth adds another whole layer of enjoyment, with its examination of class structure, of hierarchies, of the uses and abuses of power: the way it is gained and maintained, the means by which one group oppresses another, the power of words and image and tradition. These are age-old questions, ones we continue to struggle with and that continue to be explored in our arts, and I not only enjoyed how Brown does so here, but also how he seems to acknowledge that lengthy artistic tradition by referencing Classical thinkers (Romans in particular are a direct influence on this setting’s culture). In fact, in language and style, and in the use of the occasional aphorism, there is a real sense of Classical literature and drama at times as one reads.

The language throughout, in fact, is yet another strength. Even at the start of the novel, where I had some concerns as my son and I listened to the audio version (I began on audio as we traveled out west, listening to about half of it, then read the latter half) with regard to some of the obvious tropes and clearly predictable plot lines, I kept telling my son, “I don’t know yet how I’ll like it, but I have to say it is very well written.” There is a notably, noticeably higher level of prose/stylistic quality to Red Rising than to most novels I’ve read recently.

Brown has taken some recent and classic dystopic storylines and bent them toward his own purposes in Red Rising, making them entirely his own and creating a taut, compelling, thoughtful novel that has me eagerly awaiting the sequel.

~Bill Capossere


Red Rising by Pierce Brown SFF book reviewsPierce Brown’s Red Rising is an action-packed, captivating work that mercilessly keeps you up until 4AM in the morning (I experienced this).

There are a few rough edges — for example, I do wish that some of the backstory and subplots were more fleshed out — but mostly I just wish the book was longer! :)

I enjoyed the plot and the emotional impact — highly recommend it!

~Kevin Wei


Red Rising Pierce BrownBill’s review, above, gave a good synopsis without revealing too much, so I won’t spend too much time on that. This book exasperated me terribly, and I put it down saying, “That’s it! I’m done,” at least twice. And then I went back to it.

Darrow is a Red, the lowest level in a brutal, hierarchical society ruled by the all-powerful Golds. There is little or no upward mobility in this society. After Darrow becomes radicalized in the most stereotypical way, he is taken up by a rebel group who call themselves the Sons of Ares (the society has based itself, somewhat, on Roman mythology). The Sons of Ares help Darrow infiltrate the Golds, and soon he is on his way to an exclusive school. Then it’s all Harry Potter meets Lord of the Flies, with a little bit of Ender’s Game thrown in.

I had trouble accepting the world-building here; I didn’t see a form of currency or an economic basis for the stranglehold the Golds have on everything; and throughout the book I just assumed that we will discover later that the Sons of Ares are actually bankrolled (assuming, you know, banks) by a Gold family because there is no way they could have the power and resources that they do otherwise. This is not a spoiler because I haven’t read the other two books, and maybe I’m wrong. The degree of genetic/biological enhancement that is displayed early in the book is contradicted later on by what we see and hear of the Golds. The Golds are ruthless; to best them, Darrow will have to be more ruthless. Ruthlessness is not pretty.

So, I put the book down. Except I really, really, really wanted to know what happened to Darrow. I didn’t even like Darrow, but I definitely engaged with him. So I went back. I put it down again a little bit later… but I went back to it again. I liked Darrow’s friend Goblin, who is one scary little dude. I worried about Darrow’s relationship with Cassius. I worried about his own struggles with the meaning of loyalty, but by the end, when I hit a chapter called “War on Heaven,” I was completely, unabashedly rooting for this bitter, screwed up boy with anger management issues and his band of polished killers.

I can’t say I “loved” it, but I did not stop reading it, and I’m completely on-board for Golden Son, Book Two.

~Marion Deeds

Pierce Brown’s relentlessly entertaining debut channels the excitement of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. “I live for the dream that my children will be born free,” she says. “That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them.” “I live for you,” I say sadly. Eo kisses my cheek. “Then you must live for more.” 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 lush wilds 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.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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KEVIN WEI, with us since December 2014, is an undergrad at Columbia University. Secretly, Kevin has always believed in dragons. Not the Smaug kind of dragon, only the friendly ones that invite you in for tea. This might just be because Funke’s Dragon Rider was the story that mercilessly hauled him into the depths of the SFF genre at the ripe old age of 5. His literary tastes range from epic fantasy to military fantasy to New Weird, although sometimes he does enjoy a good space opera here and there, and some of his favorite authors include Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Django Wexler, and Joe Abercrombie. To Kevin, a good book requires not only a good character set and storyline, but also beautiful prose — he is extremely discriminating as it pertains to this last bit. Outside of his bibliophilic life, Kevin loves economics, philosophy, policy debate, classical music, and political science. You can find him at: www.kevinwei.me

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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6 comments

  1. Wow, this was totally NOT on my radar. But now it’s on my TBR list. Thanks, Bill!

  2. I agree with most of what you said–a very thought-provoking book. I ha some trouble rooting for him, however, since he didn’t seem to have a clear plan for how he was going to make things any better. Which I suppose is the challenge with most revolutions. But his hard, necessary choices only seem warranted if he has a plan to bring about some kind of lasting change for the good to his society, which was never clear to me.

  3. Kevin /

    I had two major problems with this book. First, Darrow is way too perfect for a teenager who has been resigned to manual labor his whole life. I tried to get past that until I ran into the second problem. Darrow and his wife escape from underground (remarkably easy BTW) and see the above-ground world for the first time in their lives. They are so enchanted by seeing grass, trees, the moon, etc for the first time that they immediately flop down and have sex. Come on. Did the fresh air kick their teenage hormones into overdrive?? That’s when the book went back to the library. It was too “Twilight” for me.

    • Hey Kevin,
      I’d consider giving it another shot. Once you get past that opening, things really improve greatly (though you still have to suspend disbelief). I know exactly what you mean here, and I had some concerns early on, but it’s a wholly different book afterward.

  4. You think you’ve read a dystopian book? Quit lying to yourself. That was teenage angst wrapped in a shiny new package, cashing in on the popularity of this genre.

    You think you’ve read about evil futuristic regimes? Nope, those were one dimensional villains that will look cartoony compared the assholes in this book.

    You think you’ve seen hurt and suffering and despair and heartache? You’ve seen nothing.

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