Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations.
Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.
But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.
Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity’s overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society’s ruling class. 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.
Dystopian young adult fiction is a genre that seems to be suffering from an over-saturation ever since the rise in popularity of The Hunger Games, and we’ve had countless of books billed as the next big thing, with The Maze Runner and Divergent franchises following suit in quick succession as they were adapted into movies. However perhaps the best of all four is Pierce Brown’s Golden Son trilogy, starting with Red Rising, which is darker and grittier than all three, incredibly violent and action packed from start to finish, set in an imaginative world that makes the most out of a Roman/Greek inspired origin.
As I’d recently read An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir I was reminded of a few similarities in the plot, with Darrow working undercover to bring down a regime much like the protagonist in that novel. But Darrow feels more realised, more memorable, and although he’s not perfect, being to hot-headed and quick to anger, he’s actually pretty well developed and grows throughout the book as he struggles to deal with the fallout of finding that not only is his wife dead, but also his entire life is a lie. His character can sometimes throw you off and can be frustrating, but there are other times when he really shines.
The book has echoes of The Hunger Games in its structure with fights to the deaths between groups of kids but handles it in a different approach. There’s a caste system which the dominate Golds rule over Mars, whilst he belongs to the lowest class of the Red, who are slaves. Darrow is a Helldiver, a miner on the Red Planet, and it’s all he’s ever known. When he’s thrown out of his familiar surroundings into new terrain he has to watch himself, lest he be caught using terms that only a Red would use. There’s this constant high stakes feeling throughout Red Rising, that constant danger as though nobody is safe. Darrow isn’t afraid to do the killing as well, with a notable memorable sequence happening to one of the characters who would have probably made it out in a book not as grimdark as this.
Whilst the setting and story may be fairly generic I couldn’t help but be entertained with this mostly well written drama that provides an excellent series starter even if the beginning is a fairly slow burner. The book really picks up about three quarters of the way through, as you learn more and more about the world which itself is richly developed.
I was reminded a lot of the Warhammer 40k Universe as well in the world-building and I could imagine something like this happening on a planet in the Universe, obviously with a few changes here and there. Obviously fans of The Hunger Games will enjoy this one as well and the groundwork is also laid here for some possible space combat in future novels, which is touched upon well. The Caste system that Brown develops is rich and well developed, exploring not just the Red and Golds but also White, Blue, Pink and more with each given a different task. It makes a bit more sense than the Divergent system for example but again it begs the question why must every other YA dystopia involve some kind of system like this?
Blending the Roman and Greek mythology together well, Red Rising is a very solid read if not really an original tale. Darrow does feel as though he can get pretty much everything right constantly and comes across as a male Mary-Sue equivalent at times. But whilst Darrow is flawed in that approach he is reasonably well developed in others, and the plot is tense enough to keep readers hooked, because this is a literal page-turner that was impossible to put down for me and as soon as I started I quickly found that I couldn’t stop reading.
Red Rising finds a way to out-do the brutality of The Hunger Games and holds nothing back to create a bold if flawed entry to the young adult genre that’s considerably darker than others of its ilk. Having already read the second in the trilogy, Golden Son, it’s already shaping up to be one of the better young adult series available right now and comes recommended as a result.