Red Rising is a science fiction novel written for young adults. It follows in the footsteps of Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, in that our hero, Darrow, is a stereotypical protagonist whose fate is to rise from the lower class and lead a rebellion to topple the unfair regime of the wealthy elite. I could’ve described this novel as a dystopian YA in the opening sentence, but with this review, I am actively trying to adopt a neutral stance, because even the words “dystopian YA” can evoke certain feelings.
Red Rising is a good novel, but in playing it safe and following so closely to its predecessors, it has missed the opportunity to tell a unique and engaging story. I enjoyed reading it, but I hesitate to call it memorable. The biggest failing was its narrative, which we will look after plot and character. There will be spoilers.
Darrow is a miner. Within the colour system that indicates social rank, he is a Red, a slave who digs in the mines for resources so that the colours above him can live in luxury and comfort. After his wife dies (in a very corny and drawn out scene) he becomes a tool of the Sons of Ares, a rebel group who wants to dismantle the social structure, and part of the plan is to have Darrow reconstructed to look like a Gold (the top of the pyramid) and rise in society’s ranks in order to take it apart from the inside.
First off, the plan kinda sucks, don’t you think? The rebels believe that if they can make Darrow a commander of a fleet of spaceships, they can take down the rulers of this society. If they were smart, they would know that might does not equal right, and any revolution that relies on power and violence is doomed to fail, because that’s what the oppressed are usually rebelling against. Fortunately, to the author’s credit, Darrow himself learns this lesson during “the games,” a proxy simulation of the middles ages with castles and forests and rivers, and students sorted into Houses and conquering each other until there is only one left standing.
One of the things that drags this book down is that it’s tiresome. In 1985 Orson Scott Card popularized the genre with Ender’s Game. Suzanne Collins has already helped produced the cinematic blockbuster of our time with the Hunger Games series. And along comes Red Rising, another cookie-cutter entry cashing in on the fad while it’s hot. It’s uninspired, and so are many other things, but it stands out more when it’s obvious you are directly trying to bank on the success of another writer’s work. I know that it’s difficult to come up with something original, and that most works are inspired by or based off of something else, but Red Rising doesn’t really do much try and stand out on its own, besides having the planet Mars as its setting.
The point of “the games” is to teach the students, who are mostly under eighteen years old, how hard it is to live in a society without rules and dominance. It is also a system to weed out weaklings and see which students are suited to becoming military leaders. However, the majority of events that take place are unconvincing with respects to this goal. None of the characters demonstrated sufficient military strategy and tactics to make me believe this was a military academy. The most clever thing Darrow’s army did was ambush a fortified castle by having his army hide in horse carcasses strewn about the battlefield, and he had to use this same trick twice (basically). Everything else is deus ex machina; whether it’s Servo saving the day, Darrow’s brute strength seeing him through, or the convenience of invisible armour, gravity boots, or hyper armour, there always seems to be something saving Darrow and his army other than a simple, well-formed, plan. I’ve been spoiled; I’ve read many great military novels that don’t have military listed as its primary genre. For examples of fiction that take seriously the art of war, I recommend Jack Whyte’s A Dream of Eagles and Colleen McCullough’s Master of Rome series.
Nonetheless, the plot contains several awesome moments, my favourite being Darrow realizing what it takes become a leader by letting himself be flogged. While the plot by itself is mediocre at best, the characters definitely helped to spice things up.
This was by far the novel’s greatest strength. Servo is definitely the most interesting character, because Brown does a great job setting him up and maintaining him as the most mysterious. There was never a clear reason given as to why he is so loyal to Darrow, but that only added to his appeal, somehow. Just about everyone had a unique personality, from bold and beautiful Mustang to tortured and beautiful Cassius. I wish there was more time for this novel to develop them, but the market demanded that a trilogy be made, and so their stories are incomplete by this novel’s end.
Darrow is a strange character. Sometimes I like him, and sometimes he’s boring. This inconsistency makes me ultimately dislike him. His story is interesting in that he is thrust into a position where he is befriending the people he will eventually destroy, but his observations and remarks are strange, which is the fault of the narrative (see below) more than anything. By the novel’s end, I still hadn’t felt as if I should care for Darrow’s success or failure. He’s the hero, so we all know he’s going to win, but his mission and goal is undermined from the beginning because we know he doesn’t deserve it. His abilities and his body were given to him by a Carver (a reconstruction surgeon, basically), which means he got to where he is not because of who he was intrinsically, but because of what surgery and eugenics gave him. This part weirded me out. It was necessary to the plot, but having Darrow undergo the transformation further removed him as a sympathetic character, because despite enduring a whole lot of pain, he is not fulfilling his mission as a Red, but as a Gold, and that really takes away a lot from his overall mission.
Darrow falls into the unfortunate situation of being a bland character surrounded by interesting characters in an interesting setting. He’s merely our point of view as we go along for the ride, and the stereotypes of losing a loved one and being a “street rat” are too boring and overused to make him interesting.
Nevertheless, his interactions with others are interesting, because it’s easier to care about Mustang, Servo, Roque, and so on.
I think this was the nail in the coffin for Red Rising, in terms of being a novel I could hold in esteem. Brown’s writing style aims for concision and effectual one-liners. This doesn’t work because the lack of explanations and descriptions makes the entire novel bare and fragile. This ties in to the complaints above. By the novel’s end I do not believe Darrow is a capable military commander, because we got very little narrative regarding how he came up with his plans. He hides in horses and sends people through shitholes. So what?
The narrative does many things wrong, the most important of which is telling more than showing. Darrow explicitly states who he likes, who he hates, rather than having us, the readers, like/hate them ourselves. It is also very strange how during Darrow’s carving, *before* he receives training and *after* learning about the surface for the first time, Darrow seems to know so much about the surface and all the gadgets and gizmos that the Golds and other colours use. I thought one of the main points was that the Reds were digging in ignorance of the world above, yet Darrow describes the surface of Mars and its cities with clarity and a noticeable lack of wonder. And thirdly, there are many moments where the book reads like a first or second draft manuscript. Sentences are just plain odd, such as the line when Darrow falls into a pond: “I don’t know how to swim, but I must learn”, as if swimming is something that can be learned instantaneously. Many phrases were awkward, as if the writer was trying too hard to come across as articulate and well-spoken. I wish the editors took more time with this one, but it seems as if they were eager to get it out, before the dystopian YA fad passes through.
Most unfortunate was how skimpy the narrative was in the beginning. We were supposed to like Eo, as her death is the impetus of Darrow’s actions and his primary motivation, yet we only get one major interaction between the eighteen-year-old husband and his sixteen-year-old wife, and character development is minimal. The simplistic narrative fails to make her a sympathetic character, and this in turn makes Darrow a hollow character as well.
There are moments of awesomeness in Red Rising, but on the whole this novel does dystopian YAs a disservice by being full of cliches and being poorly written for the most part. However, this story does contain several memorable characters, which unfortunately doesn’t include the bland and brooding protagonist. It passes as an engaging one-off, but that’s about it. I have no desire to read the sequels, primarily because the narrative has not inspired any confidence that it’ll be worth my time.
I’ve never been into dystopian YAs, primarily because they always feel political, and there’s a huge disconnect whenever the plot dives into “the games.” That particular plot device is unappealing to me, though I completely understand why so many people like it. It creates a sense of fairness, as in “anyone has a chance,” which continues the theme most of these novels have about the lower class carrying themselves up. However, I notice “the games” always end up being irrelevant by the end. Their only purpose was to help the protagonist make friends and show off their resourcefulness, and that’s all. Everything’s always the same, and given the common themes of these novels, I also have to turn away because political fiction seems fishy to me. I read not to be reminded of why my society sucks, and I have yet to read a fiction novel that really gets me on board with revolutionary ideas. Though I’m more anarchist than conformist, I think it is safe to say that dystopian YAs caters to the rebellious teenagers rather than the Banksy’s, the Guy Fawkes, and the Martin Luther King Jrs. It’s entertaining in the same way indulging in Disney movies is entertaining, except Disney movies usually do a better job at getting their message across and making us care.
On the other hand, if you enjoy dystopian YAs and/or are an aspiring writer of this genre, I believe Red Rising serves as the perfect cookie-cutter novel to base your own work off of. It checks everything on the list, dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. Pierce Brown definitely deserves the success he has found with this story; as for me, I cannot recommend it to any well-read audience for any reason beyond a curious week-long distraction.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.