Red Rising by Pierce Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
4 stars even
I have mixed feelings about Red Rising, but because the predominant ones ended up being really positive, it gets a high rating. But I have to still address the dissenting impressions I had throughout: the main reason being that I felt like I was reading several different books. The first thing I thought with the introduction of the powerful Golds and the oppressed Reds was that this was like Red Queen, except with Gold as the dominant class instead of Silver. (Though Rising came out the year before Queen.) But then the other colours were introduced and a bit more of the world was built, and I realised it was repackaged Brave New World, except that the Golds are a bunch of idiots in comparison to Mustapha Mond. Honestly, if you intend to genetically engineer your different “castes” to physically match their assigned colour, then you should also genetically engineer them with literally only the cognitive capabilities to perform their assigned duties so that they don’t revolt. Just a thought.
However, the explanation for how propaganda kept the lower orders of Reds in line is very The Island (2005) and made for an interesting, if foreseeable, revelatory twist that helped set the protagonist on his path—of course, there is a more problematic catalyst to get this Red clod Darrow to start clawing his way to the surface, which I’ll get to. The twisted dynamic of the government creating shared guilt through forcing the population’s complicity in horrific acts was also fascinating and it was woven with powerful effect throughout the novel. The first part of the book is the shortest, yet it literally felt like the longest, it dragged so much and the worldbuilding has so little impact on the rest of the story. In this section, Darrow’s wife Eo tells him she dreams of a world where Reds are free, and their prospective children might have a life of choice and autonomy. Darrow basically says he doesn’t share her dream—she’s his dream. And she’s just like, guess I’ll die.
Forget prospective children. So she gets herself executed in order to motivate Darrow to take up arms. Why was she so insistent it had to be Darrow who spearheaded the revolution? Why couldn’t she have gotten involved in the revolutionary efforts herself (short of openly breaking the law and getting herself killed immediately) and let Darrow come at his own pace? To me, it just felt like we had to get the wife fridged as soon as possible so the real main character could get on his “chosen one” journey. It felt forced, cheap and, dare I say it, like it was just necessary to leave room for a love story later on—I liked the love story later on, but I didn’t like how Eo was shelved in order for it to be possible. Why couldn’t Darrow have actually been a self-motivated individual, who was mad enough when he lost the Laurel to fight against the system? Not every hero has to be reluctant; let’s get over that right now. He already had dead family members who could have been motivation; Eo didn’t have to get herself killed just to prove a point that had already been proven ad nauseam.
What’s worse is Eo’s death wasn’t even sufficient to motivate him—it was some rando revolutionaries in the second part of the book that he’d never even met or identified with who eventually did that. (The Sons of Ares were criminally underutilized—they just turned into deus e machina to get Darrow out of one place and into another to get the plot moving. I sincerely hope they get more development in the later books.) It just felt all wrong how it played out. Then it turns into a Gattaca (1997) story, where the protagonist has to undergo extreme plastic surgery, reconstruction, and all sorts of horrific delights in order to transform him from the lowest caste to the highest—because, remember, the difference is all in the appearance, which makes it an easy system to hack. Darrow doesn’t even break a sweat competing with the Golds intellectually, even though he’s lived his entire life as an uneducated worker ant. A little bit of cerebral enhancement and absorbing great works of literature, philosophy, and strategy through osmosis while you sleep is totally all you need to be on par with these born and bred overachievers—because, again, Golds were more concerned about making sure everyone had the right colour of eyes than that everyone they wanted to keep below them were actually intellectually below them. It’s never very clear what he’s specifically supposed to accomplish once he gets in—take over the entire government? Presumably after he’s cleared the first round (i.e. this first book), the rebels who helped him get on this road in the first place will contact him with more concrete plans. Seems like if you go to all the trouble and risk of faking someone into a higher echelon of society, you would want to make sure to give them some solid instructions and keep tabs on them so they didn’t go off-book and blow the whole thing—like Titus. This part is a typical transition section that serves a function but isn’t too gripping in and of itself, although it does have a killer ending that hit really hard. (There’s a rather dark pun in my last phrase if you’ve read the book.)
Of course, Darrow does get into the Institute which will be his gateway to higher society—which turns very quickly into a Camp Half-Blood game of capture the flag if it was with Hunger Games rules and timeline. They draw the comparison to capture the flag themselves, I’m not making that up. Also, there are scenes reminiscent of Ender’s Game as the proctor reappears at periodic moments throughout, a little bit paunchier and more stressed each time, like Graff, as he watches the unpredictable moves Darrow is making. Darrow is also an Ender-ish character, who does what he has to to win… except he doesn’t take responsibility for it, not really. It’s society that has made him do it. The grand point of the plot gets a bit fuddled during the War Games section, and while it’s about the most gripping, interesting part of the entire book, it feels like it’s a different story than we started with. This might be because Darrow himself gets a bit lost in the person he has become: there is an element of “To fight them, you must become them” type of reasoning Darrow comes to ascribe to. Which, while true the society created the conditions for it, doesn’t mean he is free of all culpability in how he chooses to respond to their false dichotomy—he’s supposed to be so freaking good at “extrapolational thinking,” can’t he come up with a third option when he’s placed in a kill or be killed scenario? Maybe not, but then he needs to own up to what he’s doing. On the other hand, because he doesn’t, it creates some of the greatest tension and executions of betrayal I’ve read. So I guess it makes for good drama, but a flawed character.
Within the games, his alliances fall apart, realign, expand, contract, and slowly he gains a legion of loyal, willing followers who revere his persona as “Reaper,” the sign being a curved blade… is the USSR imagery too subtle? Red? Sickle? Bringing down the hierarchy? No? Okay. In the third and fourth parts, the pace is fast and it skips time easily and smoothly, not leaving Darrow too much dead time to evaluate the greater societal meaning to the immediate situation—which is realistic and keeps the momentum pushing strongly forward through the latter half of the book. The realizations Darrow does have are natural and come out of his experiences—he doesn’t sit around philosophizing and having CW show heart-to-hearts with everybody in order to artificially stimulate some kind of emotional connection in the reader.
I appreciated how the character development and arc comes directly out of the plot and incident surrounding it. Darrow shows his best qualities as a strategist and a leader while in this hyper-reality, forming alliances and friendships with the Gold kids that make him realise that they are all people, which causes internal conflict because of what they as a whole have done to oppress his class. It’s a compelling insight into Darrow, given tangible form in his evolving relationships with Cassius and Mustang, even while he remembers the execution of his wife Eo at the hands of the Golds. The arc with him and Cassius is the high point of the novel for me. I like Mustang too, who, after they have a Peeta-dying-in-a-cave-and-Katniss-sneaking-out-for-medicine moment—twice—comes to be Darrow’s friend, advisor, lieutenant, and eventual love interest. Speaking of The Hunger Games moments, the assault on Mount Olympus was very nightshade berries to me, except on a grander, more overt scale. Again, these Golds are incompetent in comparison to almost every other totalitarian state in dystopian novels. But it was satisfying, I’ll grant.
What was not satisfying was the introduction of “the Jackal” out of a clear blue sky, who, stereotypically, was House Pluto and was framed as a big bad rival of Darrow/Reaper’s. Who is he? What did he do? Besides cannibalism, it was never specified that the Jackal did anything clever as far as tactics. The closest he came was setting the trap for Darrow and that didn’t work. And there was definitely no known personal element between him and Darrow to give their “rivalry” weight. Everything the Jackal got was because the proctors helped him. It wasn’t Reaper against Jackal, it was Reaper against the proctors. And, again, they didn’t do a very good job of “favouring” the Jackal, if they literally left him to kill half his own House in an attempt to avoid capture by another House and eat a bunch more in an attempt to survive after he’d trapped himself. But yet those very things he actually did himself gave him such potential as a character—he was a survivor. His willingness to do anything to muscle his way through a situation is a fascinating quality, and one that could have been compared with Darrow’s innovation for working around things. But no, we just get a clinically insane stereotype easily despatched at the end. And the “personal” connection that was revealed fell rather flat. The Jackal could have been a paperweight for all the development he got. Escort this man to the lower echelons, please. Let him be a helldiver, he’s got the guts for it, and literally nothing else. I would have liked more Cassius instead: more of the rivalry between him and Darrow. There was such tragedy in their relationship and its betrayal that would have made for a much more impactful showdown than the mediocre one with the Jackal. (And don’t get me started on how bland the other Big Bad, Augustus, is. I guess when you’re the person directly responsible for a loved one’s death, you don’t need a personality to be seen as worthy of hate, which is fair.)
All things considered, this book elicited a lot of reactions, feelings, thoughts, and analyses from me, which is something it couldn’t have done had I not gotten invested. I will definitely read the rest of the series.
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