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.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Red Rising, by Pierce Brown

  1. I’ve got this on the stack with Annihilation, so I just scanned your thoughts and will return later; I’m really looking forward to both. Though sorry to hear that this one didn’t match your expectations: that’s always disheartening. (I’m not saying it makes sense to include those two books in the same corner of my reading brain; it might be as simple and arbitrary as their being first volumes in page-turning-ish trilogies. But it happens, right?)

    • I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts on Annihilation, as it’s caught my eye. And as for this, I’d take something to heart re: my review, and that’s that I tend to, for the most part, go against the grain when it comes to my YA dystopias. I get really frustrated when they trade character for plot, which is I feel this book’s largest offense. It kept me at arms length throughout as a result.

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