Warning: There are some mild spoilers in this, so proceed at your own risk!
I follow a number of book-centric accounts on Instagram, many of which seem to be focused on young adult novels, so I’ve seen my fair share of artistic photographs highlighting the books in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy over the years. I had never really looked into his books though, 1) because I am super partial to Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series and 2) the last time I read something that was hailed as “the next Hunger Games,” I was sorely disappointed.
Then, in December, shortly after my feeds exploded with excitement over Brown’s cover reveal for his next book (the first in a new Red Rising trilogy), I overheard a couple of coworkers talking about their latest reads. One was being particularly effusive about the young adult dystopia that was helping her get through her commute and I was intrigued. I always love getting good book recommendations, so I joined in their conversation and asked what the novel was. She pulled out her copy of Red Rising and I was finally convinced that I needed to check it out for myself.
If you aren’t familiar with Brown’s series, here is a quick summary:
The year is 2700 (ish) and humans have colonized the Solar System. Society has been divided into a number of color-coded castes, each with a very specific function. Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste, and believes that he and his people are working – and suffering – to help make the surface of Mars livable for future generations. He soon learns that Mars was terraformed hundreds of years ago and that Reds – along with most of the other colors – are merely slaves to the whims of the ruling class, the Golds. “Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute . . . where the next generation of humanity’s overlords struggle for power. . . . There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies . . . even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.”
Now, if you’ve read a few young adult dystopias like I have, much of that synopsis will sound familiar to you. The setting and the societal organization are unique, but the plot of Red Rising is extremely similar to the series that have come before it: there is a corrupt and oppressive ruling class and a plucky young hero intent on bringing it down. And that was one of my biggest problems with Brown’s novel.
Don’t get me wrong, I was completely sucked into the story and ended up quickly checking out the other two books in the series, but a lot of it still felt derivative to me. The descriptions of the Golds made me think of the citizens of District 1, while the biomodifications of some of the other colors were reminiscent of Scott Westerfeld’s Pretties and Specials. The HoloCan video exhorting the Reds to keep working for the betterment of future Martians (and showing a false image of a desolate surface) reminded me of the Capitol’s video of a burned-out District 13, while Eo’s song became a rallying cry much in the same way that Katniss’s “Hanging Tree” did. Even the selection of the students at the Institute for their respective houses called to mind the Sorting ceremony in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Red Rising did begin to stand on its own though once the game at the Institute finally began. As a former student of military strategy, I absolutely loved the second half of the book. The particulars of Darrow’s campaigns to take control of the other houses were fun to see, but I also enjoyed watching him learn from his mistakes and grow as a leader – there were some good lessons in there.
I was most struck, however, by the mature relationship that Brown created for Darrow and his wife, Eo. While we didn’t get to see them together as a couple for long, there was a deepness of feeling there that isn’t always present in young adult novels. Of course, it would have been nice if Eo hadn’t had to die to start Darrow on his journey (because I am getting really tired of that kind of plot point), but I appreciated the fact that Brown made them more than stereotypes.
Overall, I really liked Red Rising. It was the first book in a long time that I had trouble putting down and though parts of it felt like familiar territory, it was more complex than I was expecting. Brown’s novel was a good reminder to never judge a book by its cover, though in this case, it was more of a call to never judge a book by its comparison to similar stories.