Red Rising by Pierce Brown was not on my radar until someone lent it to me with the description, “It’s like Hunger Games for guys.” That was all I knew about it going in.
That description is somewhat apt. It is, indeed, a dystopian future with a male main character. In fact, if someone from the Hunger Games were to imagine an even more dystopian future, this might be it.
When I started the book, I thought it felt. . . familiar. I definitely got the Hunger Games connection right away, but that’s mostly because it shares many of the tropes common to this genre: a complex caste system; an immoral ruling class that thinks its invincible; a 16-year old angry, badass protagonist; a sacrificial character who motivates the protagonist on their quest to end oppression; a crazy, violent contest the protagonist must try to win.
I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get past this, but I kept reading. The society is a color-coded caste system. The narrator belongs to the lowest caste, the Reds, who live and work under the surface of Mars. Darrow and his family are told they toil to make Mars habitable to the people living on the dying Earth. He is comfortable with his place in society, only thinking as far winning a competition with a neighboring community for a reasonable amount of food and luxuries like antibiotics. When he does not win, he begins to feel dissatisfaction with his lot in life. His wife reveals that she has also harbored some discontent.
Now, I’m not really spoiling anything by saying his wife dies early in the story. You should have that figured out the second they introduce her character. She’s like the red shirt sent to the surface on a mission with Kirk and Spock. Or it reminds me of that episode in Downton Abby when everyone starts gushing about how wonderful Matthew is; it’s only a matter of how they are going to kill him off at that point. In this case, it is also evident how his wife is going to die; Brown bludgeons the reader with foreshadowing.
Following his wife’s death, Darrow is recruited by The Sons of Ares, a resistance organization. He soon discovers everything he has been told about his life is a lie. They give him a chance to infiltrate the Gold ruling caste and bring down society from within. This leads to his enrollment in a Gold school where he learns all sorts of violent, horrible things.
I did find I was able to get past my initial issues, and I was rewarded with some well written characters and a compelling story line. I like that Darrow isn’t perfect and he has constantly warring motivations. He struggles to keep his mission at the forefront of his mind because he begins to get caught up in his present reality as a Gold. He discovers that not all the Golds are vapid and soulless and finds friends among his competitors. His character continually learns and grows as the story progresses.
There are two other books in the series, Golden Son and Morning Star. I plan on finishing the series and had to stop myself from getting the next one the day I finished the first. If I bought the second one, I would think I might as well buy the third, and then since I borrowed the first one I would need to buy that too so I have a complete set. It gets expensive.
I would recommend this to anyone else who likes violent dystopian fantasies and can get past a few cliches.