Monday, 25 July 2016

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

I was extremely aggravated by the first part of this book, to the point where I was already ranting about it on Facebook. Then, after an extremely rocky beginning, it settled down and became a not bad entry in the genre of YA dystopias. I know I've written about this before, when I reviewed Divergent, but this is going to be more a review of how this fits into that genre than how it fares objectively as a book.

It's not bad, although it doesn't really feel like an innovation. On the level of the tropes of this particular genre, Brown does it fairly well, and the different groups battling is an interesting take on it, even if it doesn't feel entirely fresh.

So what is this book? It would help if I described it before comparing it to every other book out there. Well, if teenage dystopias often center around young people being streamed into different groups depending on aptitude, and then gradually discovering that the world is not meant to be so neatly partitioned and there's rot at the core, then this book reverses the usual order.

It starts with discovery of the rot, as the main character is a "Red," and yes, in this book, the various segments of society are divided by colour - although, as we'll discover, the highest caste, the Golds, has a further warrior caste divided by aptitude, symbolized by Roman gods. The Reds are miners on Mars, told they are preparing the world for the coming of everyone else. They're downtrodden, turned against each other. And then the main character, Darrow, discovers that, actually, Mars has been terraformed for a very long time, and they're just a slave caste, kept ignorant to head off rebellion.

I think some of my issues with the early part of this book have to do with when it starts. If it had started later, and we gradually got Darrow's backstory, the fridging of his wife would have been irritating but not as enraging as it actually was. Because we start before that, we're given a long period where we're shown how his wife is smarter, kinder, more perceptive and more radical politically than he is, and so it is an authorial choice to kill her off dramatically for the sole purpose of putting a fire in Darrow's belly. Why not have it be the other way around? Why make her more awesome, just to gut her? It's irritating, partly because it's done so fucking much.

So, we have a world where she is executed and not saved, and he is executed and saved. (Drugged, appeared to be dead, saved. They want to remake his body to make him appear to be a Gold, to go to the Gold academy and infiltrate the highest levels. Sure, he's physically adept as a miner, but given that they're entirely remaking his body from the ground up anyway, and the academy is equally open to men and women, why pick him and not her? The answer here is solely that there has to be a Chosen One, and it's him.)

I am, I suppose, not saying that they should make the wife weak. Just that it's incredibly annoying to find yet again, a kickass woman who is way more interesting than the main character, but is killed off/sidelined so he can discover his destiny. If you're going to do it, be skillful than this. My husband and anyone who happened to be around me while I was reading this section can attest to the fact that it was done so ham-handedly that I ranted about it for days straight.

From there, the book got better. It's still never going to be up there on my "must recommend it to friends" list, but it becomes enjoyable enough I'd read the second. Darrow does make it to the Gold academy of course, and of course he's so good he outGolds the Golds, even if he isn't as restrained as he needs to be. At the Academy, the Golds are divided into twelve houses, and at that point, each of them has to kill another one of the applicants. (As in, they're put into deathmatches with someone else, and only one person comes out alive.)

From there, they're plunked down in a grand arena (shades of The Hunger Games,), and forced to battle each other, although mostly not to the death. Darrow vies for leadership of Mars, but eventually builds cross-god collaboration and fights to win the whole game and graduate to become someone important in the growing Gold empire. Along the way, he realizes not all these Golds are evil. But still needs to bring the system down.

It's really not revolutionary. There is some reordering of the way these tropes often appear, but nothing that really shatters the genre or brings something entirely new to it. However, once I stopped being really annoyed at this book, I had to concede that the author tells his story well and the emphasis on the corruption behind the system is not new, but done with particular verve.

But, oh yeah, for those tracking how irritated I've been this year with how many rapes there have been in the books I've read (I think we're somewhere between better than 1 in 4 or 1 in 3.) There are a lot of rapes in this book. Not up close and personal, but all over the fucking place.

Find. Another. Way. To. Show. Us. Villainy.


  1. Rape has kind of become a shorthand in contemporary fiction for creating tension without wanting to invest any effort in developing characters we care about. If you care about characters enough, you don't have to do something that extreme to upset the reader. Remember how devastating it is in Buffy when someone says something mean to Willow? Yeah. That.

  2. I started reading this a while ago, and gave up part way through. Sometime after the wife died and before he ended up in the Gold Academy, anyway.
    It was recommended to me, but it didn't grab me at all (and I think actively repelled me, even.) Glad to see that it wasn't just me.

  3. I couldn't agree more! It's a sign of lazy writing and has become a disturbing cliché

  4. I agree with you about the completely unnecessary gratuitous reliance on rape as a horrific "tension/suspense" builder in not only literature, but also in tv shows and movies these days-- it's why I don't watch "Game of Thrones", since I've always heard about the ridiculous amount of gratuitous and brutal rape scenes (along with endless sordid brothel scenes and other brutal, rampant misogyny in general) on the show. The only reason I'm still probably going to go through with reading this book eventually is because my husband got it for me as a gift, so I feel like I should at least try to take a stab at reading it as long as I already have it in my "to-read" pile by the bed (once I've finished all the OTHER books I'm already trying to get through ahead of it, of course!)--and it sounds like it might be worth checking out, at least for some of the descriptive storytelling anyway, from what you were saying-- so hopefully I'm not too put off by what sounds like the horribly unnecessary death of the much-superior and more likable wife of the protagonist, as well as all the lazy, misogynistic rapey bits, so I can make it through to the good parts! Thanks for the heads-up about what to look out for!

    1. It wasn't as egregious as some of the books I've read recently (wow, is that a low bar), and I did more enjoy it than not, so I hope you do too, Karen!