Today a review of a YA novel, the first installment in a sci-fi dystopian trilogy that made quite a splash a couple of years back. I had been eyeing it for a while, sci-fi and dystopia being my constant points of interest, but the trigger to read this book was a friend’s recommendation – thanks, Dave! 🙂
I’ve read the first book and now am finishing the second. I think I can reasonably well tell you now what that fuss was all about :).
Red Rising was Brown’s debut, and has all the marks of a typical debut – the author is trying to find his voice, the writing is uneven, there are great ideas along some pretty bad ones… The story is YA-ish simple, the list of clear inspirations and allusions to genre literature and pop culture staggering. To sum it up in one sentence, I could say that Red Rising is a smooth mix of Lord of Flies/Ender’s Game/Hunger Games/Harry Potter/Braveheart/Gladiator. It would be completely true, but at the same time a bit unfair to the book. It is unoriginal; there is no point in arguing otherwise when one of the opening scenes is taken straight from Braveheart and the final ones clearly imitate Gladiator, when the whole imagined culture is a sadly trivialized version of the culture of Roman empire and the middle part is basically Ender in Hogwarts. But, surprisingly, I didn’t mind it overly much. Why, when usually I’m so awfully picky? Well, the answer to this will take a good number of sentences to explain, but in short – the worldbuilding and the characters in general, but especially the bloody-minded main protagonist.
A 16-year old named Darrow is a Red – a worker from the lowest caste of those born and bred to hard, physical work. His life is spent under the surface of Mars, where he digs the Helium-3 veins necessary for the terraforming process. The Reds are the humanity’s vanguard on the hostile, still not habitable planet: they toil and labor in the ultimate effort of enabling the humanity to reach the stars. His kind marries early, bears children early and dies early, and when they don’t work they dance and sing. Ugh. So stereotypical that actually painful. But all that changes one day, when he realizes, in the most painful way, that all he knew and had been told his entire life was a lie. The Solar System had been colonized many centuries before, but Reds are still kept in the dark, toiling away in tunnels and mines. Their hard, unappreciated work serves to keep the strict social hierarchy of different, color-based castes in order. Each caste is bred separately, their biology and physiology altered by eugenics and surgical treatments to the extent that people from different castes barely seem to belong to one species. On the top of the rigid hierarchy are Golds – Ubermensch of Brown’s world, extremely powerful and ruthless. They fancy themselves descendants of Roman Empire – each with a name like Cassius, Titus, Antonia, Octavia or Victoria (with the refreshing exception of Sevro and Fitchner), with mighty houses vying between themselves for naked power in the form of a planet Governor’s seat or a bigger spaceship army, and they believe they are the ultimate pinnacle of human development.
Our lowborn protagonist, Darrow, through a twisted series of events, allies himself with a mysterious terrorist group and sets out to change the world. Haven’t we had it before, more times that I could count? Oh, yes, we had. A bold youth touched by a personal tragedy, seeking justice and setting out to make the world a better place. Use the Force, Luke. He goes through a long, painful process of transforming himself into a Gold, with the aim of exploding the rigid society from within. He is “carved” into a superhuman, taught and trained the Matrix way, and then sent to a special school for the best of young Golds – the Institute. There, in a year’s time, he will learn everything he need to attain the highest tiers of the society – or will die in the process. Should we predict the outcome?
It sounds so painfully obvious and unoriginal… It mostly is, to be totally honest. But what saves this book is the main protagonist. His plight might be unrealistic and illogical, and his story is like an old song we have heard hundreds of times before, only performed by better artists than Brown, to boot, still… his emotions ring true. He is complex, psychologically believable in his imperfections and the way of thinking. He behaves like a sixteen-year-old put in an extremely difficult position: sometimes forgetful, sometimes raging, sometimes petty, even plain stupid, brutal and recklessly irresponsible, but always trying to be better, to achieve that unattainable goal that expectations of others somehow put on his back. A reluctant hero. So it is with other characters, many of them more multi-dimensional than in some of the books that Brown took inspiration from – Harry Potter or Hunger Games. Moreover, this book is a real page-turner; if you want some fast-paced, brutal action, interesting protagonists, blood and gore, betrayal and heartbreak, and a YA angle in a pop-culture Roman sauce, then Red Rising is for you.
I appreciated the worldbuilding. I quite enjoyed the underlying fundamental idea of a rigidly stratified and genetically modified society, the inequality and lies and rage the first things people took to the stars ;). The first book is somewhat self-contained; we don’t see much of the society outside of the deep mines and then the artificial environment of the Institute. But the second book shows us much more, to advantage of Brown’s intriguing world.
A few words about the language. Some reviewers raved about it, but I found it difficult to swallow, even off-putting at first – a staccato of very short sentences, each of them designed to be the manifest truth, a word from a prophet, or something equally important and heavy, but in the end… ridiculous. Just a taste here:
My people sing, we dance, we love. This is our strength. But we also dig. And then we die. Seldom do we get to choose why.
But after some time, say one-third of the book, the sentences grew longer, the story grew more intriguing, and the heavy-handed truths got a bit rarer, thankfully. I got hooked – enough to get the second installment right after the first, and this doesn’t happen too often.
It’s a YA novel, doubtless, but decidedly for older young adults than most of the books in that genre. Lots of blood and gore – and I mean lots: it’s violence for the violence sake, and the shock and awe factor is very high – but at the same time a fair share of difficult (sometimes illogical) choices, and definitely more depth than is the standard. All in all, a decent, highly enjoyable and light read that will probably keep you awake long into the night. Score-wise – a bit like Cline, better than Lynch, verging on the border between medium and well done.