Map of Blue Book Balloon

22 December 2014

Thoughts on "Red Rising" by Pierce Brown - spoiler warning: thoughts, not a review.

Red Rising
Pierce Brown
Hodder, 2014
Paperback, 282 pages

Bought from my local independent bookshop.

I find it endlessly surprising and fascinating how, in a world of Twitter and blogs, I now find books to read.  "Red Rising" is a good example.  I somehow managed to miss this book despite it getting lots of praise when it appeared earlier this year, but finally picked it up last week in anticipation of the sequel which is due early in 2015.

I only did that because I saw Liz of Liz Loves Books claiming on Twitter that she'd been proselytising in a local bookshop, urging complete strangers to buy the book.  It's always good seeing that kind of passion, and she also mentioned that there is a sequel coming, so I asked if I should give it a try...

Before I go any further, I should warn you, if you haven't read the book, that below THERE ARE SPOILERS.  I could review this book briefly but I really want to discuss it in more detail because at actually made me think.  So, proceed on that basis.

At first, I did wonder what all the fuss was about. The setting - a pitiless, hierarchical society that keeps its most downtrodden, the "reds", slaving in the mines of Mars - is well drawn, but it didn't seem anything special.  We're introduced to Darrow, the main protagonist, one of the reds, who toils in atrocious conditions to produce the minerals that are needed to make Mars habitable. If they strain every muscle and meet their quote, they may get a little more food to share, a few more comforts, and Darrow shows himself bold - almost reckless - in straining to achieve this.  It's all a con, of course, and we pretty soon see that things are rigged to set the different miners against each other and keep the elite - the "golds" on top at all times.

Darrow suffers, having done nothing wrong: his wife is killed and is sentenced to death.  He has no choices but to die or to join a vaguely sketched rebellion.  The rebels want him to infiltrate the Golds' (the ruling caste) elite academy, the Institute, where the cosseted sons and daughters of the rulers are toughened up and turned into future commanders.  The idea is, I think, that Darrow will rise and use his position in the hierarchy to bring down the system.

More about that below, but first I just want to say how brilliantly written and compelling Browns' subsequent narrative is.  Forming the final two thirds or so of the book, this is essentially the story of a war, both between the aspiring Golds and between Darrow and them (and the system they're all trapped in).  Quite simply this part of the narrative rises to a whole new level.  Forget the improbability that Darrow would even get so far, or the scientific implausibility of aspects of the book (mining for helium-3, for example).  The writing simply sweeps all before it.  Darrow is drawn with great mastery; he is among enemies on all kinds of levels.  The stakes are high for him - discovery will lead to a cruel death, not only for him but for his family and clan.  For the sons and daughters of the Golds, losing means disgrace, but nothing more: think The Apprentice with swords.

Or does it?  Things may not be quite that simple and - as becomes clear - things are rigged at all levels.  The world of the Golds is supposed to me "meritocratic", that is, to let the best rise in order to preserve the order of Society: but as we know, power corrupts and those who have it aren't willing to let their own offspring go under.

That brings in a whole level of complications which Darrow must overcome if he is to win - and survive.  But the setting he's in brings more. It's awkward, but he discovers that the Golds aren't all monsters: and perhaps some of the things he has to do and more monstrous than anything which has been done to him.  How is he to pursue his mission - and his revenge? - amongst this?

I was impressed by Brown's command of the realities of the situation here.  Darrow is bound to be compromised.  For example, he falls for a girl, one of the other competitors, who turns out to have close connections to the worst of his enemies.  He discovers that another is also a Red is disguise - and has to kill him.  (Shades, perhaps, of GK Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday in which the Central Council of Anarchists is entirely composed of police infiltrators.  I have a hunch that many of the most powerful Golds may be disguised Reds, and that this may even be winked at as a means to recruit the strongest, most driven new talent as a counterweight to the corruption caused by ingrained privilege).

The story of what happens in those "games" is, in short a lesson in power and a lesson in division: the structure of the mines is repeated at all levels, with friend set against friend, brother against brother (and sister). It's a compelling springboard for the second and third volumes in the trilogy, where I hope to see some of the paradoxes of Darrow's rebellion explored - quite simply, "change will not come from above" and I don't see how command of a starship, or a fleet, is going to allow him to topple the rule of the Golds and bring his fellow Reds up form the mines.

I wonder how long it will take him to learn that?

 Or whether he will manage to avoid the dead end and achieve what he really wants?

Whatever, this is a trilogy where decisions matter, where there are real consequences and you can feel the reality of the choices.

I am so glad that I listened to Liz and got this book!

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