Thursday, January 23, 2014

Book review: 'Red Rising' by Pierce Brown

A thousand years in the future, the human race has colonized the solar system. To do so, it has reverted to a social system like that of ancient Rome: martial and strictly stratified by caste. Sixteen-year-old Darrow is a Red, the lowest caste in the color-coded system. He and his strata live below ground on Mars, mining the mineral that used in terraforming planets.

It’s difficult, dangerous work, with a very short life expectancy. (Girls marry at 14, and Darrow’s uncle is considered old at 35.) Being a Red means having red hair and red eyes and being tattooed with the caste symbol on the back of the hands. They are also known for drinking and dancing.

The Reds are ruled over by the Golds, the most elite of them being the Peerless Scarred, who also bear a scar on the face. The leader of Earth, one of the Peerless Scarred, appears on screen all the time to remind the Reds that they are doing essential work for the human race, and that one day they will be able to ascend to the surface of Mars, which is a lie, because people have lived above ground on Mars for hundreds of years.

Darrow is handsome and extremely talented at his work, driving the drilling machine. The last thing on his mind is rebellion, but his wife Eo has other plans, the outcome of which is Darrow being willing to do anything for revenge.

What he must do is infiltrate Gold society, and one of the of steps he must take it attending the Institute that trains the Peerless Scarred. A thousand are admitted, but less than half graduate the school, which separates students into houses that live in castles. Each house must fight the others until one is victor.

If you’re thinking Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games, you’re not far off. But rather than Quidditch matches and house cups, think ruthless, no-holds-barred battle as in A Game of Thrones. The story is ambitious, and the writing moves, making Red Rising a page-turner. Although I sometimes had trouble keeping track of some of the details, I was very taken with Darrow and impressed with the intricacy of the social system. The result is a well-told story that is also quite interesting.

It also happens to be brutal. It reminds me a little of Lev Grossman’s book The Magicians, which gives a hard edge to the idea of a school of magic. George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is also fabulous fantasy storytelling with a very hard edge.

I find both Harry Potter books and the Hunger Games trilogy touching in a way Red Rising is not. I can’t help but wonder if Harry and Katniss are different because they were written by women. It’s not that J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins set up worlds without peril for their heroes; far from it. One element that catches my eye is the role of love. Love is the ultimate good in Harry Potter. In The Hunger Games, love is the highest virtue. In A Game of Thrones, however, love is a weakness that gets you or the object of your love killed. In Red Rising, love is the fuel for revenge.

A difference between male and female views of love or just different takes on storytelling? Could be a bit of both. Either way, I am looking forward to seeing what author Pierce Brown has in store for Darrow in the following installments of the trilogy.

NOTE: I see other reviews mentioning the likeness to Ender's Game, the highly original, early 1980's science fiction story by Orson Scott Card that was finally made into a movie last year. I suppose the aspect of dividing kids into teams in Battle School bears a superficial resemblance to the Institute, but the age difference -- pre-adolescent children versus young adults -- and the battle situation -- Ender using stun guns in a zero gravity gymnasium versus Darrow having to survive without weapons or supplies in the countryside -- kept it from coming to mind for me, I think. But if you are more a fan of Ender than Potter, I can see the resemblance working better for you. Darrow's journey to earning respect of his fellow soldiers is reminiscent of Ender's as well.

Regarding my theory about love, I think it extends to Ender's Game. Ender comes to see love as weakness, and his sister, the one character motivate by love for Ender, does not come out on top, either.

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