What do you get when you cross Battle Royale and Ender’s Game and then set them on Mars for good measure? Red Rising, that’s what.
This book sucker punches you with its opening (see below) and then just keeps running. It’s very much in the same vein as The Hunger Games, but with added class warfare. The main character, Darrow is a Red on Mars – the lowest of the low. But after his wife dies, he joins with a rebellious organization to take down the tiered society and creates re-created as a Gold. He tests in and gets sent to their elite academy, which pits the students against each other in war games to teach them hardship.
Red Rising is paced exceptionally well; the plot never drags, and it’s the kind of novel that you want to consume all in one sitting (which is totally doable). It zooms through the opening, the book-equivalent of a training montage, Darrow’s entry into Gold society and then dives into the meat of the book – the war games.
And Darrow is the kind of hero who is basically impossible to dislike, even when he does really awful things like straight-up murder Cassius’s brother Julian to make it through his initiation or bail on his House and let them fall under the thumb of a brutal leader. The story is written in first person, so you never forget that opening sucker punch, which sets up his motivation and thrums underneath the surface of the rest of the novel. He is, ultimately, sympathetic, because we all have to wonder what kinds of horrible things we would be capable of if we were in his shoes. On top of that, he doesn’t actively try to be a bad person, and he becomes a rallying point for many of his comrades.
The rest of the characters aren’t bad either. Cassius is a nice foil to Darrow, the light to Darrow’s occasional darkness at the beginning, which reverses as the novel progresses. Sevro and Roque were particular favorites as well; Darrow wouldn’t have succeeded in the war games without Sevro, who proves to be his truest and best lieutenant. And what’s a book without a good villain? The Jackal is pretty terrifying, especially when you learn how he earned his name, and he’s not out of the series by any means.
The world is fully realized and fascinating – I was drinking in the mentions of all the different color castes and all the different planets and moons that have been colonized. It feels bigger than the story, which is always the goal for a novel like this one. It’s also got a distinctly Roman feel, given the names of some of the characters (Cassius, Titus, Sevro) and the prominent usage of the Roman gods. Sure, it’s definitely very stereotypical dystopia (I mean, it’s called the Society, for heaven’s sake) and you’ve seen it before, but there are enough original twists to make it fun to read.
I’ve got to take points off for the treatment of women in this novel though. I was mad as hell that Eo died only to spur Darrow on and BEYOND angry that Mustang (who is a pretty cool character and takes care of herself for most of the novel) gets DAMSELED toward the end of the novel to once again spur Darrow on. And we’re not even going to talk about the rapes or the straight-up murder-for-no-good-reason of one of the other female characters. This book has no time for its females except insofar as they serve to motivate Darrow. It’s annoying as hell, because I liked this book SO MUCH and I would have liked it so much more if its female characters actually had some agency of their own.
That was my only major quibble with the book though – otherwise, this book kicked ass. I can’t wait to readGolden Sun and Morning Star, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that the author figures out how to write a female character properly somewhere in those two books – because if he can work that out, he’s got a bright future.