Book Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown
I ended up liking this book even though the beginning dragged and I debated putting it aside multiple times. I lost count of how many times I restarted the audiobook. I just could not engage with the plot.
Finally, I got to the point where I just kept going even if there were pieces that I knew I had not caught. Now it did help that so many people raved about this book. I felt like I had to keep going to see what the fuss was about. Once I plowed through my hesitation, I finally got absorbed into this world.
Darrow is a Red, the lowest servant class in this society that classifies people socioeconomically and politically by color. Worse, Darrow is a Red who works in the mines of Mars believing that his sacrifices will result in a better life for his children. He truly is an untouchable in this caste system.
He has no idea that the surface of Mars has been habitable for generations. He lives with his fellow Reds below the surface as a slave to the entitled ruling Gold class.
Getting through the Mars section describing Darrow's job as a helldiver and his family situation, including his relationships with his particularly feisty wife Eo, and the uncle who helped raise him, were a bit painful. Brown repeats many details and the info-dumps are numerous.
The one detail that I found particularly disturbing, though, involved the low gravity on Mars.
When the Reds are punished by death, they are hanged, but the gravity doesn’t actually kill the person. A loved one has to go in and pull the person’s legs as an act of mercy. An act of love. Now that's screwed up.
Eventually, Darrow learns the truth about Mars. He's taken in by a rebel group, the Sons of Ares, and remade into a Gold in order to infiltrate the Gold society.
The Sons of Ares carve him into a Gold. Literally. Carve. This mid-section reminded me of the scenes in Gattaca where Ethan Hawke undergoes numerous painful procedures to take on Jude Law's identity.
I didn't actually like Darrow. In some respects, he's too perfect. Top scorer on the problem-solving exam placing students into the Gold Institute. He's athletic and agile. He knows how to beat the Golds at their own rigged game.
In other areas, he's far from perfect. His feelings about his wife are ridiculous. At one point he can't fathom the idea that she may sell her body for food. Not his Eo.
And then once he's admitted to the Gold Institute for molding future leader sociopaths, the sexism really sets in. One male character rapes a female and the punishment is that Darrow whips the male, allows the male to whip him, and now they are blood brothers.
Darrow's point is that abhorrent behavior will not be tolerated. Everyone suffers. But do they really? Providing a "punishment" for rape that punishes the violator and the group leader may seem progressive, but the female still lives with scars of her rape. While the two males will have physical scars, they're blood brothers now. Bonded. What does the female victim get? Nothing.
And better still in terms of sexist writing is that when the female is asked what punishment she wants the male to suffer, she replies, "Nothing." Arghhhh!!! Really?
While I found Darrow annoying as a protagonist, I did enjoy reading about this world. Once the Gold students are admitted into the Institute and everyone divides into house teams for their capture the flag year-long educational field test, I was hooked. The pacing truly picks up. People compare the Institute to the Hunger Games.
The big differences are that the Institute goes on longer, and the stakes are different. I would argue the Institute is more real in terms of human psychology. I hesitate to write that the stakes are higher because murder is not the intent of the capture the flag scenario the Golds must maneuver through.
Some people die and that is not exactly frowned upon, but the purpose of playing in this capture the flag scenario is to earn your place on the hierarchy ladder. You squash your opponents, earn your way to the highest spot you can, and the Golds who sponsor the Institute will have jobs lined up for you at the conclusion of your education. Jobs worthy of the station you earn within the field test.
Higher stakes? No. But the Gold leaders are clearly coaching their children to be as merciless as they are. In some respects, the Hunger Games is easier. You know that there can only be one victor, so everyone is an enemy. it sucks that the odds are probably not in your favor of living, but at least you know the score.
In the Institute, alliances are formed. While many alliances break, others carry on long-term. But can you ever really trust that person? Especially once you realize that the Institute is rigged? From the scaled lessons being administered through a variety of tests to the randomness of the medbots showing up to administer care to some wounded Golds, but not others, if you're participating in the Institute, you don't know where you stand. And I do find that experiment scarier.
While I am not a fan of Darrow's, I'm optimistic that he will grow as a character in the subsequent books in this series. I've got the second book lined up to read, but I may wait a bit to jump in.
I debated giving this book four stars, but the clunkiness of the first section on Mars really put me off, and Darrow irritated me more than a protagonist should.
On a positive note, this book is the first audiobook I've purchased through Audible with the Kindle version as well to make use of Amazon's WhisperSync feature. I can see how this technology could be addicting. I easily synced between audiobook and e-book. I don't see me buying both versions of all books I purchase, but for the longer ones, this feature allowed me to keep reading through walks to work, cleaning, and relaxing reading time.