Of late, only a few books tend to leave me disturbed. Gets me thinking beyond the premise and execution of a story well done. I remember Lord of the Flies did that for me – but I was much younger then. Hardly second year of college. And now Pierce Brown – an author possibly around the same age as me – goes on to write a crackerjack of a debut, Red Rising and charms the hell out of an audience jaded with the dystopian genre. Including me. I admit, the hype engine and the prepublication heaps of praise lauded onto the young author kept me away from this book. But after having blown through this stellar fusion of ‘Lord of the Flies’ meets ‘Enders Game’ featuring one of the most cold-hearted yet remarkably endearing 16-year old hero, I must say – everything is justified. And the debut deserves more.
Red Rising features Darrow – a gifted 16-year old miner deep in the bowels of a terraformed Mars – mining the underground caves for elements to help complete the “Terraforming” – and thus allowing humanity to come live on Mars. Touted to be Humanity’s last hope, Darrow is a Red. The lowest clan in the societal strata on Mars, separated by colors. However, Darrow is a talented and highly ambitious ‘HellDiver’ whose hot-headedness is only rivalled by the calm and practical nature of his young wife, Eo. It’s an almost idyllic existence – ignorance is bliss – till the day Eo, his gentle wife commits an act of treason. Of singing the “banned” song, urging Darrow and the reds to live for more and not just themselves. Eo is hanged, leaving Darrow heartbroken. And with nothing more to live for.
From here the narrative spurts ahead on jet-fuel. Darrow – who should ideally be dead – by hanging, is rescued by a rebel group called the Sons of Ares, led by an enigmatic Red who calls himself Dancer. Dancer gives Darrow his raison d’etre: Vengeance. Freedom. Of all things dreamed by Eo, who is now a Martyr and a symbol of hope for the entire population of Reds living underground. For above-ground, Dancer brings Darrow out to see the truth for himself. That Mars has already been terra-formed and the humanity has been living here for centuries. And all the messaging Darrow has been shown since he was young – was an elaborately spun ‘Golden’ lie.
Darrow agrees to Dancer’s plan of infiltrating the topmost echelon of the society – The brutal ruthless Golds who rule the world. Including a personal wish to avenge himself on the ArchGovernor who had come to witness Eo and his hanging. A few short chapters later – where Darrow undergoes both physical and behavioural transformation to emerge as one of the flawlessly perfect Gold – with fake identity papers, the plot just rockets forward. Darrow’s enrolment into the “Academy” – training for war-fare and survival – to be apprenticed to one of the higher houses and perhaps one day, command an imperial fleet – is a rousing rollicking tale of war-room simulation like none other that I’ve read. It is compelling stuff, addictive and at the same time, disturbingly violent.
Pierce Brown writes so engagingly well that as a reader you don’t realize the phenomenal world he is building around you. You are effortlessly sucked into the machinations of this pseudo-society with its myriad hierarchies, loyalties to different houses, nuanced differences in the language of a High Gold versus low Red, the stark differences between duties across levels of the society ( Golds are born to rule, Greens are tech-savvy, Pinks are for pleasuring, Whites are the accountants, Obsidians are the muscle-beasts….this fascinating list keeps going on!) – the grim vast chasms between the Haves and Have-nots of a society are brought to fore.
The pacing of course is gorydamn frenetic and the best parts are towards the second half of the book where Darrow – has to fight for survival and simultaneously prove his leadership skills…as well as stay alive in the game where more than just his own ‘friends’ have an agenda to kill him off. The darkness trapped within one’s mind is scary as Darrow realizes, fighting not to succumb to the machinations of an alien Gold Society. Where there is no room for kindness. Where the motto is to cheat or be cheated.
In terms of characterization, Brown gives us a 16-year old much more complex than Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games. Darrow is a confused youngster who grows up too fast. A broken youngster who had to pull down his own wife’s legs to break her neck and kill her while being hung – Darrow’s transformation into a Gold – brutal, cold and calculating animal – even as his conscience tries keep the larger goal clear in his mind – is astonishingly well-portrayed. The honest and brutally frank first person narrative comes across as fresh and believable. There are myriad other characters whom you will grow to love within this book as well – the beautiful Mustang with trust issues, the tiny cunning wolfish Sevro, the beastie Pax and many more.
You would think everything is hunky-dory with such a mind-blowingly well-written debut but no. Initial parts of the book is slow going. Heaps of info-dumps about HellDiving and life in the subterranean caves of Mars. I wouldn’t care less. My other grouch of course was that Darrow is such a superman. When it comes to feats of strength or speed, he is a monster. He never has a real issue adapting to be a super Gold. And so with high intelligence – like for instance, without formal training in mathematics, Darrow capably solves puzzles that - hold your breath – adapts itself to be more complex as levels rise. That’s a hoot, isn’t it? And the third I’m thinking would be the levels of unbelievable violence for a YA-crowd. The fights are more ‘Spartacus’ than ‘Hunger-Games’. Splashed with gore and blood. And thus perhaps a tad bit disturbing.
But all things said, Red Rising is a terrific debut. A compelling addictive genre-mash up with bloodydamn spectacular plotting and frenzied pacing filled with well realized characters – especially an unforgettable hero vying for revenge, rebellion and redemption - this book clearly should be a must read for everybody. Rising above age, gender and genre.