Review: Red Rising, by Pierce Brown

red-rising>>Published: January 2014

>>Finally got around to it: February 2014

When they take my eyes and give me ones of gold, I feel dead inside. It’s a simple matter of reconnecting the optic nerve to the “donor’s” eyes, Mickey says. A simple thing he’s done a dozen times for cosmetic purposes; the hard part was the frontal lobe surgery, he says. I disagree. There is the pain, yes. But with the new eyes, I see things I once could not. Elements are clearer, sharper, and more painful to bear. I hate this process. All it is is a confirmation of the superiority of the Golds. It takes all this to make me their physical equal. No wonder we serve them.

It’s not mine. None of this is mine. My skin is too soft, too lustrous, too faultless. I don’t know my body without scars. I don’t know the back of my own hands. Eo would not know me.

Mickey takes my hair next. Everything is changed.

It is weeks of physical therapy. Walking slowly around the room with Evey, the winged girl, I’m left to my own thoughts. Neither one of us cares much to speak. She has her demons and I have mine, so we are quiet and calm except when Mickey comes to coo about what pretty children we would make together.

One day, Mickey even brings an antique zither for me, with a soundboard of wood instead of plastic. It is the kindest thing he’s ever done. I do not sing, but I play the solemn songs of Lykos. The traditional ones of my clan that no one beyond the mine will ever have heard. He and Evey sit with me sometimes, and though I think Mickey a wretched sort of creature, I feel as though he understands the music. Its beauty. Its importance. And afterward, he says nothing. I like him then, too. At peace.

***

Darrow is a Helldiver on Mars. A Red—a low-class colour, the bottom of the social totem pole in terms of worth, sent with the rest of his colour to terraform Mars as future salvation for those still trapped on a potentially decimated/depleted Earth. Though only sixteen, Darrow has been working in the mines on Mars for three years. One day, his wife Eo takes him to a forbidden place—a garden belonging to the higher colours—and the two of them are caught and punished in a public ceremony. Following a further, even greater transgression, Eo is put to death, made an example of by the elite Golds—the ruling class and this novel’s stand-in for the 1 percent. Not wanting his wife to remain strung up by her neck for all to see, Darrow takes her and buries her—an act of defiance itself punishable by death. But Darrow doesn’t die; he is taken, saved by the Sons of Ares, a supposed terrorist organization that seeks to reveal to Darrow and the other Reds the unfortunate truth of their existence: that they are slaves and have been needlessly for hundreds of years, that Mars has been successfully terraformed for some time, and that they will never be allowed to rise beyond the meagre life that their limited colour affords them.

So the Sons of Ares take Darrow and they offer him the chance to live his wife’s dream: to rise up and become the revolution that will take their freedom from the hands of their social “betters” by any and all means necessary.

Pierce Brown’s Red Rising is the first in a new trilogy that promises a more aggressive, warrior- and tactic-based approach to the by this point traditional “destroy the government and free all the people” sub-genre of YA lit. Borrowing liberally from a handful of sources, Brown’s world offers up a new type of “hero” in Darrow—a largely unsympathetic caricature of a revolutionary developed not from a lowly, pre-destined hero/heroine, but crafted artificially and slotted into place as a willing, spirit-broken puppet.

Following one hell of an opening invective, Red Rising spends much of the first part mapping out its world’s structure:

The Gray soldiers prowl the cities ensuring order, ensuring obedience to the hierarchy. The Whites arbitrate their justice and push their philosophy. Pinks pleasure and serve in highColor homes. Silvers count and manipulate currency and logistics. Yellows study the medicines and sciences. Greens develop technology. Blues navigate the stars. Coppers run the beauracracy. Every Color has a purpose. Ever Color props up the Golds.

Meanwhile, in the communities of Reds on Mars working the mines, the families are divided into different homesteads with names like Omega, Gamma, and Upsilon. Between the fraternity-style nomenclature and the clear divisions of worth based on “colour,” Red Rising from the get-go is positively bursting with components analogous to Communism, false democracies, the elitist threat of the 1 percent, and your basic pre-American civil war-style racism.

And Greek myth—that’s in there, too. Because why not.

If I sound like I’m being hard on this book maybe it’s because I really wanted to like it so much more than I did. First and foremost, I respect Brown’s ambition. Red Rising does not pull any punches—the novel is a battle cry for revolution, for people to not simply accept their lot in life because they were born into it, or because the upper echelon deems it so. However, where Red Rising fails in all its borrowing from other YA source material and its parallels to the real world, both of the past and of the present, is in constructing characters that I cared about—or even wanted to care about.

Right away I appreciated that being a revolutionary was never Darrow’s dream but Eo’s. He was content being a Helldiver, living his day-to-day existence as it was. When she becomes a martyr to a greater cause, Darrow is drafted into the Sons of Ares’ revolution—he’s crafted, literally, inside and out to be a Gold, to be inserted into the high society that’s run and ruined his life from its very beginning, to take it apart from the inside. But at no point did I believe Darrow’s fire, his ambition. The problem being that the Darrow we are introduced to in the beginning more or less ceases to be following his transformation at the hands of Mickey and Matteo, who respectively build Darrow’s body and shape his mind to that of a Gold’s (and are, in many ways, not-so-flattering perversions of Effie and Cinna from The Hunger Games trilogy). He goes from reluctant participant to warrior god so quickly that it feels like two totally different characters, and brief flashes to remind readers of Eo’s continued place in his heart were simply not enough to convince me any part of Darrow’s original self remained through the transformation.

Once Darrow’s transformation is complete and he is entered into the academy that will position him for a future as a Gold, the novel shifts gears again and becomes a strange three-way mix of Harry Potter (through the divisions of the school’s many houses… though they’re all really just increasingly dickish and blood thirsty variants of Slytherin House), The Hunger Games, and a Connecticut boarding school for the sons and daughters of Republican senators.

It’s also at this point that the novel abandons all character development for a host of gloriously named redshirts, nearly all of who are entirely forgettable, save for Cassius, Titus, and Sevro—and only the latter is moderately likeable. The ensuing series of battles boils down to an incredibly violent yet surprisingly dull culling of the herd, very much Lord of the Flies by way of high society linguistics. Further, Darrow’s eventual relationship with Mustang is also perfunctorily handled—she feels as much a plot device as those killed so effortlessly throughout parts three and four.

As I said up front, I wanted to like Red Rising a lot more than I did, but while reading I found myself constantly distracted by things like seemingly arbitrary affectations (i.e.: capitalizing a single letter in the middle of a manufactured conjunction, such as slingBlade or clawDrill—why, what’s the rationale, how does this build the universe without needlessly complicating things?) and a deficit of emotion. And beyond this, it was the novel’s lineage that I found most often kept me from getting sucked in. It pulls freely from so many other sources without offering enough uniqueness in character in return as to feel like an ambitious but unfortunately empty, self-serious transaction shrouded in a grandiloquent veneer.

Review: Mundo Cruel, by Luis Negrón

Mundo-Cruel>>Published: March 2013

>>Finally got around to it: February 2014

The pastor looked at me with the prophet-look he knew how to put on. I saw him look at me with anger and then his eyes saw my slutty face. Full of pleasure upon seeing me look at him that way, he revealed his rage to me. I saw his dark thick body through his damp white clothes. I saw the hairs on his wet arms, close to his skin. I saw that he saw that I saw what he saw. I saw through his white pants how inside his white cotton jockey shorts, he grew large. I saw the brothers on the shore fascinated with my beauty, looking at me. I saw Papi’s face in the distance, looking at me look. This boy is a monster, his face said. I saw Mami look at my monstrosity in Papi’s face. I turned my back on my father and my mother and looked again at that thing that was already curving over the preacher’s thigh when he immersed me in the water.

The sound of the water pressed against my ears. Among the rocks there was a beer can. Some river shrimp clung to an old tennis shoe. I saw the preacher’s feet in his blue rubber flip-flops. Then he took me out of the water and held me for a second in his arms. “You are clean,” he said to me, and winked.

***

The nine stories in Luis Negrón’s collection Mundo Cruel are, at first blush, an adroit, often sarcastic grouping of voices and personalities, each another avenue in, another set of eyes on the lives and sexual goings-on occurring in a small community in Puerto Rico—a place where homosexuality, or indeed anything sexually removed from the paint-by-numbers standard, is met with hesitation, fear, revulsion, and in many cases, violence. However, a deeper dive into Negrón’s writing strips clean the darkly comic undertones of many of these lean, economical narratives, revealing a pastiche of negativity brewing in even the most outwardly tepid of exchanges.

In “The Chosen One,” a young boy, beloved by his mother and despised by his brothers and father, falls in love with the boys and men of his church and community. “The Vampire of Moca” is a story of an at first forbidden, then unfortunately lost connection as a landlord falls in lust with his new tenant—a man who says he is straight (and is rather concerned with keeping up appearances regarding his perceived masculinity), yet is eventually claimed by the landlord’s competition.

The next three stories—“For Guayama,” “La Edwin,” and “Junito”—break form with the others in this collection. “For Guayama” is an epistolary tale, with the narrator writing letters to a friend and likely former lover regarding the pressing need for money to care for and stuff a beloved dead dog so that it may live on—in a manner of speaking.

“La Edwin” is the first of two one-sided phone conversations. It’s about a friend seemingly unwilling to commit emotionally to their sexuality and getting caught up with a little “Che Guevara” while at university:

Yeah, girl, since they can’t liberate the motherland, they’re just going to liberate themselves sexually.

“Junito” is the second one-sided phone conversation. One friend is preparing to leave the country to find work in America—Boston, specifically—in order to extricate himself from the toxicity of his homeland. Though he is straight and has a wife and kids, his friend—the unheard, unseen voice on the other end of the phone—is gay and works in the government. The first friend urges the second to abandon his current life and join them in America, where he will be less at risk for simply being who he is.

The story “Botella” is the most unexpectedly hilarious of the bunch—not at all because of the comedy of the scenario in which a man is tossed out of his home by his wife for reasons never outright stated (though likely having something to do with him sleeping around on her and getting frequent blow jobs from a number of different men), but because of the perfunctory, deadpan writing:

The bag was on top of the table and he had opened it and asked me about the bleach and I said it was to clean myself afterwards, that it kills the AIDS and he tells me that they killed Paco and that they poured bleach all over him, and he asks me if I knew anything about that and I say no, I don’t, that it was a coincidence.

He looked at me funny and then I strangled him with a cable so he wouldn’t talk.

“So Many: Or On How the Wagging Tongue Sometimes Can Cast a Spell” was unexpectedly the most unsettling story in the collection. It consists entirely of two gossiping mothers, mid-upper crust, discussing the possibility that the son of another mother might be gay, and what a damning thing that must be—and even more damning in their eyes, that the mother in question wasn’t ashamed of her own son’s possible sexuality.

The final two stories in the collection, “The Garden” and “Mundo Cruel”, were also I felt the weakest in the bunch—the former more than the latter. While “The Garden” touched upon a three-way love with a man dying of AIDS, “Mundo Cruel” took a hard surrealist turn and proposed a world where homophobia had come to a sudden end, and how some, without the fear of oppression to drive them to fight, to give them meaning, became suddenly concerned as to their place in the world.

The strength of this collection, which “So Many” expertly drives home, is its ability to reveal larger atrocities and social problems through casual, seemingly banal yet malevolent exchanges. Many of the individuals given life in Negrón’s collection are unobtrusive with their hatred, which makes it all the more uncomfortable; in the author’s portrayal of Puerto Rico, homophobia has seeped so deeply into the social strata that the detestable nature of those who’ve embraced their nascent hatred is commonplace and without remorse.

While the collection itself is a bit on the slight side, that shouldn’t be any indication to the power of the stories contained within. Through brevity of language, choosing to paint his scenes with tone and social politics rather than needless descriptive minutiae, Negrón writes like a man attempting to pull the rug out from beneath the collective feet of a nation. Mundo Cruel is a cold, penetrating read.