“Red Rising” is not an easy – or fun – book to read. It is a brutal look at society as created and ruled by the worst aspects of humankind. The story is set in the future, during a time in which man has colonized the moon and several other planets, and society is divided into a series of castes, each designated by a specific color. The color coding of people goes so far as their eye and hair color – making it almost impossible for someone to surreptitiously move into another caste. At the top of society are the Golds, followed by a veritable rainbow of Pinks, Browns, Greens, Blues, Grays and so forth, leading down to the Reds at the bottom.
The story itself takes place on Mars, where the Reds have been kept living underground, working in the mines and being told that they are pioneers who are gathering the material necessary to terraform the planet, and that once the terraforming is complete they will be the first to be able to move to the surface. This, of course, is lie, as the Golds have no intention of ever allowing the Reds to move out of the mines.
Darrow, the main character of the story, is found by a rebel faction who believe that he will be able to infiltrate the Gold society with the intent of gaining as much power as possible and then using it to subvert the social order and free the Reds from their slavery. It’s not an easy task, as Darrow will need to change virtually everything about himself – from his appearance to the way he speaks to how he treats others – everything except who he is at his core, where are the qualities that the rebels think make perfect for this mission lie.
His first test is to attend the Gold’s Institute, a school that teaches leadership in the most brutal way possible. It is up to Darrow – with no help from his rebel allies – to not only survive the Institute, but to graduate at the top of his class so that he can obtain the best apprenticeship possible, launching him on his path to gaining the power needed to overturn society – all without losing sight of who he truly is.
The story is told from a first-person perspective which – though not my favorite method of storytelling – is quite effective here. It allows us to see the world exactly as Darrow sees it and experience it as he does. The level of immersion that develops as a result can be quite disturbing at times, but I found that it provoked me to think about who I am and what I would do under similar circumstances, which is one of the best aspects good literature can have.
Pierce Brown does a great job at world building. The society he envisions, while extreme, is plausible enough to work as a foundation for the story and at the scenes he writes that take you through the various areas of the underground mines, cities and the Institute are vivid and memorable. There were several times where I felt I was “watching” the book as much as reading it, and I’m generally not a terribly usually-oriented person. I’ll be rather surprised if it isn’t eventually made into a movie.
The characters Brown writes feel authentic – with all of the messy, conflicting emotions, desires and values that we humans have. The way that friendships are made and broken have genuine emotional impact and Darrow’s motivation for taking on this task and the choices he makes as a result feel realistic.
As I said at the start, “Red Rising” is neither fun nor an easy read, but it is good and it is well worth the effort. I know I am looking forward to the next part of the story see where Darrow goes from here. This is a book I highly recommend.