Friday, May 9, 2014

Book Review: "Red Rising" by Pierce Brown

Despite the fact that it was written for children, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series remains popular with an adult readership as well. The same goes for the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the intense themes of struggle and revolution appealing to a broad spectrum of readers despite the book's listing as "Young Adult." If the Harry Potter and Hunger Games books had an R-rated child together, it would look like Red Rising by Pierce Brown.

Darrow is a Red, one of the hardy and long-suffering pioneers working hard to terraform Mars from the underground. His unparalleled skills as a miner help to provide the precious ore that will make Mars livable for other Colors, from his fellow Reds to the supreme Golds who rule over all. But for now he and the rest of his people toil and die anonymously under Mars's red soil. All that changes the day Darrow finds out that the Reds are living a lie. While the Reds slave day after day in the mines, Mars's surface has already long been terraformed. The Golds reign supreme thanks to the toil of faceless, nameless Reds who carry on because they believe that humanity's only hope lies in their unforgiving work.

Through turmoil and tragedy, Darrow finds himself in a unique position to infiltrate the Gold level of their social hierarchy. It's unheard-of, probably impossible, for anyone to successfully masquerade as a Gold, much less an uneducated Red from below the planet's surface. But if Darrow can succeed with the help of his new allies, and rise in the ranks of Gold society, he may be able to achieve a position from which he can bring the whole lying society crashing down. But to do that, in addition to changing his physical appearance and relearning everything from speech patterns to dueling techniques, he'll have to go through the Institute. There the best of the best are singled out through unknown means, and those who come out on top are offered fame, glory, position - everything Darrow needs to achieve if he's to bring the Golds to justice.

Brown combines the intensity and brutality of Collins's Hunger Games with Rowling's school setting, then smears the whole thing with a haze of raw violence. Alliances are formed and broken, atrocities committed, bonds forged and betrayals revealed in the space of a year as Darrow and the Gold students battle each other both physically and mentally under the watchful eye of their proctors. Their burnished existence quickly fades into a more basic, brutal way of life. While rapes and violence aren't described in detail, they appear frequently given the nature of the Institute. Brown uses these atrocities not just for shock value, but to illustrate the basic brutality and desperation of the formerly untouchable Gold students. Their transformation from snobby, upper-crust adolescents to hardened leaders is underscored by the lengths to which they will go not just to survive, but to win.

There is a strong Roman pantheon theme throughout the book. The Institute is arranged into Houses that are each dedicated to a particular Roman god. Students at the Institute are placed into houses depending on certain traits that they possess and how those traits relate to the different Roman gods. Additionally, the Golds attempt to emulate the Roman Empire in their culture and regard (or lack thereof) for other, "lower" colors. Even their names are distinctly Roman, where other colors' names are not, which to me helped to underscore just how far above everyone else the Golds see themselves.

And despite knowing that Golds are the "bad guys" in all this, both Darrow and I grew fond of some of them. Sevro in particular was somehow at once odd, terrifying and (to my mind) completely adorable. And while Cassius and his brother have a complex and unequal relationship, there is still familial affection there and a duty between them. The hardships of the Institute brought certain Golds together in the same ways that Darrow's family bonded through their lives of hard work and few resources, and he had to keep reminding himself that these people with whom he formed his alliances now would be the ones he would have to tear down later, when he helps the Reds rise.

If you enjoyed the Hunger Games trilogy or Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, and are looking for something a little more hands-on that isn't ashamed of getting messy and violent, pick up a copy of Pierce Brown's Red Rising. It was released in January and is available right now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

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