Review of Red Rising by Pierce Brown
By: Michael A. Arnold

It is a tough life, working the mines under the dead Martian surface. Many people are trapped, working ceaselessly so that one day the red planet will be habitable, making a new world for humanity to call home. Earth, light-years away, is dying. This is the life that Darrow, a young deep tunnel miner (or 'Helldiver') is born and raised into, and it is the only life he will ever know. The 'Reds', miners like Darrow, are humanity's last hope for long-term survival among the stars.

Or so Darrow has always been told.

Dark and shocking truths are to be revealed in this novel, and Darrow must use all his skills and abilities to survive.

This is the set up for Red Rising, a 2014 novel by Pierce Brown, published by Hodder and Stoughton. It is the first book in a series of, so far, five novels that tell a long and complex story of conflicting plots and intrigue. Without wanting to give away too much of its plot, this series has fans and does deserve them. It is very clear that this is not something written without depth either, and Brown's writing is arguably even layered, and rich in historic parallels. As a work of YA fiction, honestly, this novel is not at all bad. If YA is your thing, the majority of its competitors are worse.

However, this is a review, and it would be a bit remiss to not point out flaws and observations here too.

While this is not going to bother many people, the plot and many of the ideas and details in this book are very familiar. It is very reminiscent of Hunger Games, Brave New World; there is also something of the story of Spartacus too (we will come back to this soon). Also if Pierce Brown has never played the 2001 video game Red Faction then it will be very surprising. The influences on this book are not well hidden, it feels like a big pot filled with the ingredients of a number of different novels, games and films being boiled into a soup. It might not be a bad soup, but it is using the ideas of other things that are by themselves the basis of very interesting stories. It would be wrong to say this is a case of the whole not being more than the sum of its part however. And it would be wrong to call Red Rising totally unfocused, but it does feel close to unfocused at times.

There are some details here (referring back to the mention of Spartacus) that are out of place. Some characters have names taken from Greek and Roman history and mythology, and there is a strong classical influence on this novel. What these mean, if they mean anything, it is difficult to say, they do not seem to have many connections with their classical namesakes. There are also, especially at the beginning of the novel, repeated references to epigrams. Often this is an in-world truism described as an epigram, which is a bit baffling as what is always being described are not epigrams. This sort of thing does make some parts feel like they are trying to be more intelligent than they actually are.

That is not to say this novel is not smart. Darrow's name is Scottish in origin, and means 'spear' or 'weapon' which is very fitting with his character, and his wife's name 'Eo' suggests Eos who in Greek mythology the goddess of the dawn and is the 'dawn' of the plot. This also brings to mind the often quoted image in Homer of the 'Rose fingered dawn', which is, quite nicely, a red color. There is a lot of intelligence here, it is just not in the more obvious references to the classics.

There are also a number of parallels in this story with history, many of them with American history especially. Brown has even said part of the inspiration for this novel came from the plight of Irish immigrants to the United States during the 19th century, and the disenfranchisement of the working class, and this is very easy to believe. There is a lot of social commentary here, especially about the way different socio-economic classes see the world. In this respect, this novel is a bit more substantial than something like Hunger Games. On the face of it the struggle is the same as that series, but it is the details that makes Red Rising more interesting. There are also a few parallels between this and the Russian Revolution, which adds another kind of weight to it.

The book has a great number of characters, and characterization is probably one of its weaker points. Taking Darrow as an example, by halfway through the book it is still difficult to understand him on anything more than a superficial level. He is strong, brave, smart, quick-witted, and that is it – honestly, he is something of an idealised Gary Stu. At one point in the book, he is even given an intelligence boost and changed into a different person, and after a few pages Darrow does not struggle with any of the existential issues this might bring up in another novel. The intelligence boost is also weak point, here is an example of it working on our hero:

Before I sleep, I drink a tonic laden with processing enhancers and speed-listen to The Colors, The Iliad, Ulysses, Metamorphosis, the Theban plays, The Draconic Labels, and restricted works like The Count of Monte Cristo, Lord of the Flies, Lady Casterly's Penance, 1984, and The Great Gatsby. I wake knowing three thousand years of literature and legal code and history.

While some are unknown (Lady Casterly's Penance might be a nod to Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence) and some of those above are not. Works like The Iliad, Ulysses, and Metamorphosis are very complex rich works of literature that cannot be read once and only once to begin properly understanding them. There is a difference, especially with those works, between having read them and knowing them well. In a way, this list even feels random, like the author got to this point and decided to just throw them in the names a few famous classic works, and make it sound like Darrow is becoming smarter and more cultured, which is lazy. Perhaps these will become important later on in the series, and perhaps Darrow grows and changes during the course of the series too, but in this book he is static and does not change: not change in his knowledge or experiences, but in his personality.

This is not a perfect novel, but as a YA novel it is probably one of the better ones. Perhaps the plot does begin to slow and become a bit plodding toward the ending of this entry, but this is the first part of a series – and so there is a lot more to offer than just this one novel. Being harsh, the first half feels like Brave New World, the second half feels like Hunger Games by way of a game of Total War. But despite this, the novel is entertaining. If the themes and universe here appeal, most readers will carry on to the next book, and there are probably going to be a lot of turns of fortune and fun along the way. Often times a series like this succeeds or fails on its escapism, and the plot and character and themes are of a very secondary importance to its readers – they just want to escape into another world. With that said, there is a lot to escape into here and for what it is this novel is good.

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