Talk about being late to the game! Look Ma, by the time I read book one in this series, the trilogy was already completed! (i didn't plan to read this book, tbh)(then my book club picked it!)(and i thought: YA SFF? worth a look) So. Red Rising by Pierce Brown: has a massive following and more than a passing likeness to favorites The Hunger Games and Ender's Game. It also kept me up all night reading. And then I stayed up even later to get all of my thoughts down on paper. Because this book is addictively readable and rage-inducing in equal measure.
"I live for you," I say sadly.
Eo kisses my cheek. "Then you must live for more."
Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations.
Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.
But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.
Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity's overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society's ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies... even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.
The life of a lowly Red mining deep beneath the surface of Mars is harsh. Darrow holds a prestigious position in his community (and finds purpose in his work for the future of humanity), but that isn't enough to feed his family when access to resources is rigged by the higher status Colors. When Darrow is offered a chance to upset the status quo and avenge his loved ones, he takes it - and encounters a ruthlessness and a world his people cannot imagine.
What was it about Red Rising that will draw the reader in and keep them reading through the night? Brown is a talented wordsmith, and he knows his genre. He built a world and a hero’s quest on an epic fantasy scale, with high stakes. The action and dynamism of the text will keep your blood pumping and your mind engaged. There’s also a sense of generational kinship between the target readership and the main character: they have been fed lies, told that adulthood means one thing, and then find out that it means another and the rules of the game have changed completely.
Unfortunately, that readability is paired with a lack of originality and straight-up erasure. Neither are a good look in science fiction. Let’s dive in.
Ender’s Game. The Hunger Games. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series. These books are mentioned as readalikes for Red Rising, in part because Brown has replicated some of their plot points wholesale. While it’s not plagiarism, it’s heavy inspiration, and if you’ve read the originals, you’ll see similarities ahead of every twist and around all corners. That lack of originality extends from the plot into the values system of Mars as well (and through the many different Color cultures on it). Honor, ritual, and sexism rule the Reds. For the privileged Golds, vanity and partying degrade their advanced humanity. Nowhere is there room for art for art’s sake. The closest you get are Red protest songs and dances, or Violet body “carving” for money and influence. One possible area of originality, the Color-coded hierarchy, is not examined at any length.
Of course, this hetero-masculine worldbuilding is nothing new, but that is THE POINT. There is nothing new. What we have instead is gratuitous, lethal violence that starts out sickening, but the reader must quickly become inured to it or put the book down. Sexual violence and attendant man-pain drive the male characters (yawn). Brown sets his epic on a distant planet, but brings the worst of the patriarchy with him into the future. CONSENT needs to file a missing persons report, because no one in this society cares that it’s not there, and that is not unpacked on the page.
Darrow at the start of Red Rising is a young man in love with no strategy except to stay under his oppressors’ radar. After losing his love, he pivots at 100 mph to a hardcore schemer and undercover fighter who catches up on a lifetime of another caste’s lived history in a matter of months. Though he supposedly goes through a set of lessons to help him “learn,” the reader doesn’t see much actual evolution on that front. Darrow had so much “natural genius” (which we know is a sexist idea, because men are overwhelmingly the ones who are labeled as natural talents/geniuses, not women) that when he makes mistakes (are they mistakes if they only grow his reputation?), he has a handy girl to help him out and recover. I firmly believe that the stereotype of a gifted boy-hero who outsmarts women or uses them only as useful arm candy or tools can be damaging to boys. It certainly doesn’t do anything to break down the story that they’re getting from contemporary society. To see this replicated 100% in a world supposedly hundreds of years in the future is decidedly depressing.
Let’s move on to erasure, and then I promise I’ll be done. Darrow is a Red, yes? Each mention of Reds is evocative of Scots-Irish miners/“Irish slave” in America myth, or of the folks who settled the Appalachian belt. Not only are the Reds literally redheaded, but they have a strong honor culture, they mine, they are poor, family is everything, they have a terrorist arm that “blow things up,” and song and dance are their escape from hunger. If you’re not seeing parallels there I recommend reading this or this.
While the Reds are “practically slaves” there is NO MENTION of African slavery (even as a historical anecdote) in Red Rising. NONE. This book describes a hierarchical society built by slave labor, but erases real Earth slavery (unless you count the Greek/Roman naming conventions as an allusion to Roman slavery). But really, the African slave trade lasted hundreds of years and enslaved nearly 13 million people. It was one of the biggest slavery systems in recorded human history. Convenient that it is missing and “Irish slavery” is not, eh? And if you’re going to come back with the excuse that there’s no room for it with the scope of the worldbuilding… why would students of the Institute be able to quote Plato and Cicero on demand, but not have had any reference to the African slave trade? The Golds might have rewritten history, but if a character can flippantly mention American presidents as an example of bad governance, it stands to reason that slavery would have been included in the curriculum. Rage = induced.
So, here’s where I’m at: friends who have read the whole series say that Brown addresses many of my issues in books 2 & 3. And I am quite curious about what happens next, but not enough to put in the hours to read those books. I don’t want to download two more books’ worth of violence into my brain if it isn’t going to make me a better person in some way or show me something new. And the first book didn’t hit enough originality points. It didn’t unpack a lot of things I thought worth unpacking. Pierce Brown has plenty of readers. While I can admire some things about his writing, I didn’t love it, and on a deeper look I found enough holes to sink the ship.
In the end, Red Rising is a flawed book that will appeal to casual fans of science fiction who want a quick, engaging read. I couldn’t like it, but I do recognize the genius of its compulsive readability.