Publisher: Del Rey (Random House)
Genre: Science Fiction
Red Rising is book one of Pierce Brown’s extremely popular sci-fi trilogy. (There are currently five books, but the first three are a trilogy). It’s the beginning of a tale about a young man named Darrow, who is chosen to help break the chains of an unfair society. This Society dictates who you are and doesn’t forgive efforts to go above your place in the star system. Every person is born into a caste broken down by colors. Darrow is a Red, the lowest color in The Society, leading him to see the ruling system for the evil that it is. He decides to go into the belly of the beast and become what he most despises to break the chains of the system enslaving him.
Violence: Heavy amounts of violence. People are killed, stabbed, shot, flogged, and beaten. Pierce Brown has a way of writing that makes it tolerable to read. He chooses to expand on violent scenes that are meant to draw emotion from the reader, not just to be violent for violence’s sake. Nonetheless, many people die in this book, and some die empty deaths. For example, when Darrow seeks entrance to the institute, he must kill another student to gain entry. This act is meant to “cull” the weak students from the strong. It’s a harsh system and an even harsher world.
Sexual Content: There is sex in the book, including sexual violence. Darrow is married at the beginning of the book (even though he is quite young) and has sex with his wife in one scene. It isn’t descriptive, but it does happen. Also, a whole color class of people (Pinks) are essentially used for sex and prostitution. While the sexual violence isn’t descriptive, it is present in the story and helps develop a particular villain in the book. None of this is treated as a good thing. If you as a reader have a history with sexual violence, this may not be the book for you, despite how vague Pierce Brown chooses to be in these scenes.
Drug/alcohol use: Many characters drink alcohol throughout the book, including Darrow. Some characters become inebriated.
Spiritual Content: There is very little spiritual content. Some color classes, such as Reds, believe in an afterlife called the Vale and one color caste (Whites) are the spiritual leaders, but there is little else beyond a few references.
Language/crude humor: Quite a bit of language. I didn’t notice it as much when I read the book, but when I listened to the audiobook version, I really noticed it. Characters use words like a**, s***, god****, and d***. There is also a great deal of crude humor as well, particularly by a character named Sevro.
Other Negative Content: The Society is constructed as a despotic caste system built like a pyramid. Golds sit on top. All other color classes sit below them and are effectively slaves to the Golds. While higher colors (Silvers and Coppers) are better off than low colors (Reds, Pinks, and Browns), they are still subservient to the Golds, who can do what they want, when they want.
Positive Themes: This book is all about fighting an authoritarian government system and culture, but Darrow does eventually realize not every elite member of society is bad. He may despise the Society, but he comes to care for some Golds and realizes not all are evil and out to oppress the lower color classes. We also see incredible acts of heroism and sacrifice throughout the novel.
Before I begin this review, I want to first pay tribute to David Fernau, one of our former comic/books staff writers, who passed away last year. David and I had planned to tackle reviewing the Red Rising trilogy together because we both enjoyed the series. I am so thankful for David’s impact in this ministry and within the larger Church. He was a willing and diligent servant of Jesus, and I know he is with God in glory now. I’m so thankful to have worked side-by-side with David here at Geeks Under Grace.
Red Rising was a book I picked up on a whim. It popped up in my Goodreads suggestion list, and I thought the cover looked appealing. I grabbed it from my local library, read about 50-ish pages, got bored, and returned it….not a strong start, eh? Well, after a few months, a friend of mine told me to give the book a second chance. Little did I know I would discover one of my favorite series. Funny thing is, I had given up on the book just as the story was about to take off. I read it a second time, and I can safely say I was gripped. I really like Red Rising and while it has its flaws, I can say this book is just flat-out fun and tackles some interesting and heavy topics along the way.
Red Rising takes place on the planet Mars, in our local solar system, several hundred years into the future. The galaxy is ruled by a single government called The Society, which has broken down society into a caste system based on colors. Each color serves a purpose, and you are the color you are born into. Reds mine the planets, Browns do sanitation, Silvers are financiers, Pinks provide “pleasure” services, Violets are artists, and Golds…rule. While this sounds like a unique experiment of cultural efficiency, the reality is the Golds rule with an iron fist and treat everyone below them as their slaves or servants. The Golds have made themselves stronger and more physically fit than the other colors – a cold reality Darrow must grapple with as he seeks to break the chains of the Society.
Alright, enough talk about the world. I’ll let the reader learn more about that. Let’s talk Darrow. He is the main protagonist, and you are in his head the entire book. You see, Darrow is a Red, and Reds are the lowest of the low (please see society pyramid above). He is a brash, impulsive 16 year-old miner. He lives a life older than his years and is perfectly willing to do his part for the Society, not shaking up the system despite his brash tendencies. However, after a truly tragic moment early in the story, he takes that built-up rage and joins a rebel group seeking to bring down the Golds and the Society…though they request something he never expected. They ask him to become a Gold and enter the Institute, the premier school for young Golds looking to further their education or acquire coveted apprenticeships. Darrow agrees, undergoes some unpleasant surgery, and becomes what he hates most… a Gold.
I really enjoy Darrow’s character. He is full of anger, but is also a
true hero. He wants to do his part to make the solar system a just and fair place for the lesser colors. You can feel his passion and rage through the pages. While I thought his decisions were not always wise, he sticks to who he is and the person he becomes. As Darrow infiltrates Gold society, he realizes not all Golds are bad, but he is still committed to his mission, creating some incredible tension throughout the narrative.
Darrow isn’t the only character I like. The other cast of characters, particularly the other Golds at the Institute, are really well fleshed out. I never debated who was who. Many times, books with a single perspective can flesh out one character very well and leave all others lacking. This was not the case in Red Rising. I knew who Sevro was, I knew who Roque was, and I knew who Virginia was. I never got lost with the characters, and I grew to care about them. Well done, Pierce Brown; you accomplished something that is very difficult to do.
What I love most about Red Rising is the book contains many common tropes I often find in young adult (YA) novels, such as people being compartmentalized into simple groupings or a school setting, but Pierce Brown puts a unique spin on them. To be clear, nothing is wrong with YA novels, but they have their common themes/tropes. While Pierce Brown classifies this series as adult fiction, not YA, the writing and world building is still similar to other YA books. One example of Pierce Brown creating his unique spin on a YA trope is the school setting. The Institute is NOT a traditional school and becomes something far more harsh and challenging, but I won’t say more. I’ll let the reader discover what Pierce Brown did with the Institute. Overall, he took the common and spun it to make the book a unique, fast, and enjoyable narrative which kept me hooked the entire time.
The book is not without problems, but these problems stem more from personal preference rather than actual flaws. I read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, and I recognize I can get hung up on the “believability” of the world the author created. Does the world need to be perfectly realistic? No, not at all, but I need the book to justify the setting. I want a good answer to these two questions: “How did we get here?” and “Does it make sense?” I like the color-coded society setting, and Pierce Brown does try to effectively answer that question. Unfortunately, it wasn’t fully convincing to me; the way he sets up his color pyramid doesn’t always make sense. Reds are at the bottom of the pyramid, but I would much rather be a Red who works in a mine and has a family than a Pink who is essentially a sex slave. The book was so good I could look past these issues, but it made me raise my eyebrows a few times.
The harsh content can also be off-putting at times. While Pierce Brown keeps most of this content vague, there are still moments where the language was overly crude, to the point it annoyed me from time to time. It made sense for the character Sevro, but for everyone else, it just felt childish. I also felt the author overused sexual violence to advance the narrative, and while it wasn’t descriptive for the most part, it still wasn’t enjoyable.
Red Rising was a fun experience, and the book tackled some really challenging and relevant issues. The Golds rule, and everyone is below them. You will find a variety of people within Gold society who have varying opinions on the existing caste system. Most believe they rule rightfully and can do as they please. Some believe treating lower colors poorly is wrong, but the system is right. Some believe the system is flat-out wrong. It also opens up the argument of how the lower colors should attain equality. Should they rebel with violence? Is there another way? Red Rising sticks to one method in particular. However, the story reminds me that Jesus didn’t call us to see the world this way, but to see a world where all people are equal in Christ’s eyes. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 ESV). Jesus spoke with the least of these in society and His offer of Salvation is not exclusive to those higher or lower on the socio-economic ladder; the Kingdom of Heaven is open to those who hear the call of salvation and accept Christ as Savior!
Overall, Red Rising is a fantastic story following a man fed up with being under another’s heel. Darrow is a hero who is passionate, but flawed with anger. I very much enjoyed Red Rising. I can’t wait to read the second book, Golden Son, for the second time and enjoy the next book in Pierce Brown’s intergalactic adventure.
+Strong character-driven narrative +Accessible +Fun and fast-paced narrative +Interesting and fleshed-out side characters +Darrow... enough said
-Slow start -Harsh content -Some odd world building
The Bottom Line
Red Rising is a strong start to an incredible series. Darrow is a fun character who is a true hero, yet deeply flawed by his passion and anger with the currently constructed society. If you can handle some of the harsher content, pick up this book and sink your teeth into a true galactic underdog story.