Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Artist’s impression of Mars four billion years ago

Warning: minor plot spoilers from the first several chapters of the book.

Red Rising, published in 2014 by Del Ray Books, is the first book in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy. The series is set in a futuristic Society where humans have colonized many of the planets in the solar system and installed a strict social hierarchy. This hierarchy is based on one’s “Color” — categories denoted by hair and eye color that determine one’s sole purpose in the Society. 

The Society’s hierarchy. (x)

There are the LowColors: Reds are menial laborers, Browns are servants, Obsidians are foot soldiers, and Pinks are pleasure slaves. Then the MidColors: Grays are police, Blues are astronavigators, Yellows are doctors, Greens are programmers, Purples are artists, and Oranges are mechanics. And lastly, the HighColors: Silvers are bankers, Whites are clergy members, Coppers are administrative workers, and Golds are the rulers of the Society.

Red Rising‘s plot follows a young man called Darrow. Born a Red on Mars, Darrow spent his entire adolescence underground, living and working in mines full of helium-3, a helium isotope the Society uses to terraform planets.

Darrow knows his life is hard — perhaps even unfairly so — but he is content. He believes he and his fellow Reds are pioneers on Mars, suffering to break in the planet so that the rest of humanity can follow and escape a dying Earth.

His best friend and new wife Eo is the firebrand in his life. She believes the system is rigged; she sees that the Golds treat Reds with unnecessary cruelty and that there are holes in the narrative the Reds of Mars have been fed. Darrow resists her revolutionary ideas; he feels helpless and does not want to rock the boat.

To prove her point to Darrow, Eo breaks the pair out of the mines into a garden on the surface of Mars — a planet which, in truth, has already been terraformed and inhabited by the other Colors for many generations. This moment resembles scenes from the Garden of Eden in Genesis; the young woman who has already seen good and evil encourages the young man to lose his innocence. Then comes the fall from grace, as Eo and Darrow are discovered in the garden, and their lives fall apart.

Soon, Darrow is alone on death row for breaking the strict rules of the Society. But instead of being executed, he is kidnapped by the Sons of Ares, a rebel organization of Reds who fight the Golds’ tyranny. They show Darrow the full extent of the Society’s deception. The Reds are not pioneers; they, like the rest of the Colors, are slaves to the Golds.

Fan art by TroubleTrain on DeviantArt

The Sons convince Darrow to undergo a painful process called ‘carving’ — a futuristic form of cosmetic surgery — so he can pass as a Gold, join their training Institute, and eventually take the Golds down from the inside out.

 Many have noted that Red Rising seems to draw a lot from several other works in the genre. The division of people into different groups all designed to serve the reigning group in a specific way is reminiscent of the Districts and the Capitol in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. The space setting, the brutal institute where kids are trained to be monsters, and the cold and calculated but morally-tortured main character all resemble Ender’s experiences in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. The way the kids are sorted into houses before the competition echoes J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and the way those houses are named after Roman gods and proctored by powerful men and women who use the names of those gods and watch their charges from ‘Olympus’ further echoes Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series.

Perhaps Brown’s clearest influence is still human history. Even though, in the Red Rising trilogy, we see characters of the same Color who seem to be of different races, the idea of one group conquering and enslaving others and using a trait like color to justify it all is sadly not a foreign one to any modern reader.

A visual representation of Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’

Like those of its influences, the plot of Red Rising follows Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ framework pretty reliably. In this context, I think the book’s genre references and clichés are most bothersome in the first half of Act One, where Brown is building his set and putting his characters in place before calling ‘Action!’, per say.

Then we cross the First Threshold, and we never look back. Plot is unquestionably Brown’s strong suit. This book grabs you. It makes you fidget nervously. It makes you hum and laugh and cry out loud. It makes you put it down and take a deep breath, then snatch it back up to find out what happens next.

In the end, though I might have liked Red Rising more if I thought it made less use of clichés or owed less to other fiction that came before it, I still believe that Brown wove those elements together into one hell of a book.

4/5 stars. (What does this mean?)

Check out my review of Book 2, Golden Son!

Have you read Red Rising? The whole trilogy? What did you think? 

This review has been cross posted on Goodreads and LibraryThing.

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