Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest class in the colour-coded society of the future. Part of a human colony in Mars, he and his fellow Reds work to make the surface of Mars habitable for future generations. Except it turns out, the surface of Mars has been habitable for some time, and a different class of humans — the Golds — have been living in luxury thanks to the work of the Reds and other colours within society. When a personal tragedy opens Darrow’s eyes to the truth, he undergoes a painful physical transformation to become a Gold and infiltrate the highest echelons of society in order to destroy it from within.
As with any dystopia published within the last few years, Pierce Brown’s Red Rising has been compared to The Hunger Games, and Darrow to Katniss Everdeen. There are certainly similarities — unjust society, hot temper, heroism and sacrifice, etc. However, Red Rising isn’t quite as concerned as The Hunger Games with youth and the loss of innocence. Perhaps it’s because Darrow, like most teenagers in his society, is already married. Or perhaps it’s because we meet Darrow in the middle of a work day, practically indistinguishable from the adults he works with — unlike Katniss, who is forced to hunt so her family will survive, Darrow fulfills an accepted role in his society as a breadwinner for his family. Distinguishing this as well from other YA dystopias, the story actually feels more adult than young adult until the second half, when Darrow goes undercover in a training institute for Golds and the book reverts to familiar YA dystopia territory.
Red Rising is an exciting, action-packed science fiction thriller. Reds and other colours are kept subjugated so that the ruling class can maintain their supremacy. This is clearly wrong, and a rebellion has begun. But first, Darrow must face the Gold training system, which turns out to be horrifically brutal (like, Hunger Games-level brutal), to the point that it strains credibility that society would allow such a ruthless system to continue for their children. Within this training system, murder, rape and Lannister-level scheming are all par for the course, in the quest to be top of the class. Imagine the Hunger Games, but every one is a career. There is a girl, of course, whose loyalty is called to question, and a best friend, from whom Darrow is hiding a horrible secret. It’s brutal, it’s intense, and Brown never lets up the pace. To Brown’s credit, his world building is so masterful that it actually does end up being believable, and like Darrow, even the reader may soon forget his larger mission and the world around this training centre.
Still, the story is at its best when it deals with the machinations beyond the arena. There are some moments of nuance that give power to a more complex story — for example, when Darrow undergoes physical transformations to become a Gold, he is uncomfortably aware of how much these transformations are improvements. In terms of many physical aspects, Golds actually are superior to Reds, and while that is likely the result of conditioning and environment affecting evolution, it’s an uncomfortable observation for the author to make, and a bold one that reveals potentially much more serious effects of racial or class based segregation.
Darrow’s battle to make top of his class in Gold society and the innovation of his strategy foreshadow the eventual resolution of the larger conflict in his society. Red Rising is a promising start to what could be a powerful trilogy; one just can’t help but be impatient for the training to be over, and the actual rebellion to begin. It’s a trilogy custom-made for the screen — non-stop action, non-stop thrills, very little time for contemplation. Yet the seeds for a deeper story are there, and I at least can’t wait to see how the story progresses beyond the arena.
Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.