Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review - Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Short review: Darrow is a Red working as a miner deep under the surface of Mars, oppressed by the system. Then his wife is killed for defying the law, and he turns his efforts to gaining revenge.

First a Helldiver
Then flogged, hanged, and left for dead
But reborn as Gold

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Red Rising is a dystopian novel set on Mars that tells the somewhat cliched story of how a member of the lower classes oppressed horribly by the system, chooses to act in order to take vengeance for the death of a loved one. But the story is much more than that, as it depicts the pervasively insidious nature such a system has upon those who find themselves at its highest rungs, tempting and seducing even those who are most dedicated to its demise and who have sacrificed so much to undermining it.

Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in a highly stratified society in which people are categorized by color. Some people are Blues, Purples, Pinks, Greys, and Silvers. At the top of the pyramid are the privileged and powerful Golds, who run everything. But in Darrow's life, he has only seen other Reds, some Greys and Obsidians, and one or two Golds, because he lives deep under the surface of Mars, working in a colony dedicated to mining precious helium-3 to be used to help terraform the surface of the planet so that it can be made habitable for humans. Darrow is a Helldiver, with the manual dexterity to work dangerous mining equipment, but he is living in an intentionally unfair society in which the Reds are kept on short rations, and to obtain even basic medical supplies Red women must sell themselves to higher caste men. Even when Darrow's tribe produces the most helium-3, theoretically entitling them to bonuses, the spoils are instead given to another group. Despite this, Darrow is disinclined to fight the system, in part because all of the workers have been told that their sacrifice is a heroic effort to pave the way to making Mars a paradise for the benefit of future generations.

As a story in which a downtrodden member of the underclass accepts his position in a dystopia doesn't usually make for a particularly interesting story, there needs to be a catalyzing event that sets the protagonist into motion to change their society. In Red Rising, the catalyzing event takes the form of Darrow's beloved wife Eo. Being forced to work a dangerous job, live on the scraps of others, beg for medicine, be shafted out of rewards, and knuckle under whenever the authorities happen by is not enough to get Darrow to rebel. Not even the judicial murder of his father and the threat of being flogged and seeing Eo flogged for a trivial infraction is enough to spur him to action. But when Eo deliberately provokes the Gold overseer by singing a forbidden song and is executed for her crime, Darrow defies the law and buries her body, leading to his own execution, and through a series of events, to his joining a radical group of rebels known as the Sons of Ares and their enigmatic representative named Dancer.

Instead of being given the chance to throw bombs or launch a suicide attack on the oppressive regime, Darrow finds that the Sons of Ares have a longer term plan in mind for him. He is subjected to a series of harrowing surgeries, a grueling training regime, and extensive reeducation designed to allow him to pass as a Gold rather than a Red so that he can infiltrate the power structure and subvert it from within. Through this process it becomes clear that not only do the Golds occupy a higher status than the other castes, they are better, although whether this is due to genetic engineering, selective breeding, or some other process is not entirely clear. To complete the process, the Sons of Ares also give Darrow a falsified history, providing him with records detailing his family background and education so that he can gain admittance to the Institute - a training ground where the children of the elite Gold families are sent to receive their training. One might note that this raises a somewhat glaring question: If the Sons of Ares are able to subvert the ruling powers' records system this completely, why do they need someone to impersonate a Gold in order to undermine the system? Couldn't they already wreck the system if they have infiltrated it that much already?

Because this isn't a novel about brave computer system hackers infiltrating a secure network to destroy a government by corrupting their data, Darrow takes the entry test and is accepted into the Institute, where all of the candidates are drafted into various "Houses" that represent the Olympian deities. Because he has among the highest test scores of any candidate, Darrow is considered a juicy candidate for several houses, but because he is a member of the Red caste from Mars entering an establishment located on Mars, it makes thematic sense for him to be drafted into the House of Mars in order to load on even more symbolism, and so he is. After an initiation ritual in which half of the members of each house end up murdered by the other half, the real education of the Institute begins, which consists of the members of all the houses engaging in a months long conflict to establish dominance both within each house and between the various houses. This portion of the book feels a little bit like a mixture of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson mixed with The Hunger Games, with a little bit of rape and enslavement thrown in for good measure. Once this segment gets going, it dominates the rest of the book with the twists and turns of shifting alliances, reversals of fortune, and all-out battles.

As interesting as the fighting between House Mars, House Minerva, House Apollo, and all of the others is, it is secondary to Darrow's own internal struggle. Having been modified to have the body of a Gold, educated to have the mind of a Gold, and taught to behave as a Gold, Darrow, in a sense, actually is a Gold, despite having started as a Red. And this fact is a honeyed trap for Darrow, as he finds himself behaving like, and at times thinking like a Gold rather than an infiltrator sent to overthrow the Gold regime. Further, his attendance at the Institute places Darrow into close contact with many young members of the Gold caste, and while several of them are cruel and callous, many others are sympathetic, or even likable. He even finds that he may have romantic feelings towards a young woman dubbed "Mustang", a development that Darrow is naturally conflicted about and makes him feel as if he has betrayed Eo's memory. Darrow also discovers that the system is corrupt and unjust at all levels, and not merely for those on the bottom rungs. Through his time at the Institute he begins to slip into Gold ways of thinking, playing the internecine warfare game well, but initially, on their terms, a mistake that proves costly. It is only when Darrow violates, perhaps not technically the letter of the rules, but certainly the spirit of them that he is able to truly make his mark. It is these elements - Darrow's internal struggle against the temptation to accept his new position in life, and the humanization of the privileged oppressor class - that set Red Rising above the pack of dystopian novels, and makes it at least a little unique.

In the vast field of dystopian science fiction, it is difficult to be notable. By serving up a fast-paced and interesting story, Brown has managed to accomplish this feat. Red Rising establishes its setting, provides the reader with enough background to make you empathize with the protagonist, and then moves through the plot at a tempo that is rapid enough to keep the story moving, but not so rushed as to gloss over important developments in the story. Along the way,Red Rising also provides interesting characters, an action-filled plot, a little bit of political philosophy, and a fair amount of emotional impact. Overall, this is a decent book that is sure to please anyone looking to scratch their dystopian fiction itch.

Subsequent book in the series: Golden Son

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