Though in his debut novel, Red Rising, author Pierce Brown cobbles together themes from Ender’s Game, Gladiators, The Hunger Games, Captain America and even 300, the idea that it could be horrible is far from the truth.
And while found in the science fiction section (instead of Young Adults), most of the book reads like it’s set in some variation of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones universe –with castles, horses and one betrayal after another.
Red Rising is set about 700 years or so in our future, where the inner planets and outer moons have all been terraformed (which also reminded me of James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series). But somewhere in the past (and borrowing another sci-fi trope) while technology has progressed, humanity has regressed back to almost Roman times (Brown uses many Roman and Greek names for characters and cities); the solar system is ruled many powerful families, and all are competing to be on top.
And like all those born with a silver spoon in their mouths, they don’t go into the difficult task of terraforming themselves, but use other people, low-born folks (frontline workers I would say), to build your world. The gist of the story is set on Mars and we learn early that society is graded by colors (which is not a new plot element either, but I believe Brown chose this particular color-coding for a reason that is not fully explained until you learn about the authors background), Gold are at the top and Reds are at the bottom (author Jasper Fforde does a variation on this in his 2010 novel Shades of Grey).
Our hero is 16 year-old Darrow, who is a Red. Worse, he's a lowRed, working the mines of Mars, never allowed to see the surface. LowReds are told they are pioneers working to make the planet bloom, but it's a lie. The planet has bloomed already. But like Ender, like Katniss, Luke Skywalker, Darrow is the Chosen One, though he –of course- does not know that. He’s better and quicker than all of his fellow workers and family, and he’s smart and asks all the wrong questions, which puts him on the radar of the Rebel Alliance; I mean the Sons of Ares, a mysterious group of freedom fighters who have deep pockets and plans to over throw the ruling families of the solar system.
With the death of his wife (yeah, life in the mines is short –mid 30’s is considered old), Darrow loses what happiness he had, and with one little rebellious act, he’s hanged (and like The Expanse, Brown pays a bit of attention to science and ignores a bunch of other stuff), but due to Mars low gravity, a hanged person must be pulled by the ankles to complete the neck breaking.
But, as you can guess, this was all a ruse. Now in the hands of the Sons of Ares, Darrow goes from skinny, but swift emo teenager into a Captain America body that screams Aryan (which means no actor of color will be cast in the movie version of this book). The idea is that with the boys temperament and his idea of hurting the ones who allowed his wife to die, they can disguise him as a Gold and make him eligible to compete in games for promotion.
As plans move forward, Darrow (which is an unusual name for a Gold apparently, as it’s mentioned by others many times through the book, and I wonder if there is pay-off in subsequent books) must fight and kill, first in a cage-fight called The Passage (which really is another word for culling) then an epic game on the surface of Mars where dozens of Houses fight for control of a wilderness reserve.
I liked the book, even though it gets off to a clunky start. The last half, however, moves very fast. And as it’s the beginning of a trilogy, Brown does not explain much about how society fell backwards. Of course, either he’ll explain this in later novels or maybe he’ll just assume no cares about that tedious aspect and just get wrapped up in the story.
Still, what bothers me –again this is not explained- if the games (which lead to apprenticeships and other high-end goals) are not about wholesale slaughter of rich and powerful Golds –then what is the endgame (beyond what Sons of Ares want)? I mean we see these teens acting ruthless, being treacherous and trying to enslave others, but Fitchner (this novels variation of Hunger Games Haymitch Abernathy) keeps pointing out that while torture is deemed okay, wholesale murder is not. Yet that goes on multiple times throughout the book.
Then again, perhaps we can find some of what Pierce Brown is foisting on us by looking at his background, especially his time as an aide on U.S. Senate campaign (along with stint as a page at NBC and a “peon” on the Disney lot). Perhaps he’s taken those years working for these sometimes ruthless people and upped the ante here. It makes some sort of sense. But in the in the end, if one person has to go all through this shit just to be an apprentice to some high and mighty folk, the person who hires them has to be more evil than them.