As part of my summer initiative to get through more of my TBR bookshelf, I picked up Pierce Brown’s hit sci-fi novel, Red Rising. This is the first installment in a trilogy about a young man named Darrow. Darrow lives and works as a “Hell-Diver” in a mining colony under the surface of Mars. He is an important part of his society of “Reds,” the lowest caste on humanity’s complex, color-coded hierarchy. Working for what he believes to be mankind’s future settlements on Mars, he discovers there’s a lot going on the Golds and others near the top haven’t been telling him.
I’m going to try to keep this review to mild spoilers, but do be warned if you intend on picking up this series. In order to fully analyze the novel, I’m going to delve into some details that may be revealing.
First of all, let’s cover some of the things Brown’s novel and protagonist, Darrow, do well. The jacket and synopsis pulled me in initially. They’re the introduction to a well-developed, extremely creative world that stimulated my imagination throughout. Brown executes an original spin on a common YA plot– a low-born underdog rebelling against his or her corrupt futuristic government. One of the strongest points of the novel, and the way the author reveals his world, is through imagery. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts of this kind:
- “My suit is bubbling and I smell something sweet and sharp, like burned syrup.” (9)
- “They have flavors for alcohol, like berry and something called cinnamon.” (22)
- “They fight in pairs, swerving, dancing, killing, ripping through a field of Obsidian and Gray as though they were at play with scythes and all the bodies that fell to them were like stalks of grain that sprayed blood instead of sallow chaff.” (105).
- “Lilath was once a moonfaced girl with cheeks that did smile but now don’t. They are drawn and newly burned, pocked and cruel…[i]t’s like looking at a fish from an underground river.” (248).
Most of the main characters, including Darrow, are believable, if underdeveloped because of the sheer number of them. Darrow is sympathetic, possesses flaws and has insecure, weak moments. He reacts brashly sometimes, and occasionally throws out the legitimately funny one-liner. My favorite characters ended up being the secondary ones, and my absolute favorite person in the entire novel only has a short stint in the spotlight: the “Violet” artist/stylist, Mickey, struck me as soon as I met him and continued to amuse, fascinate, and impress me. The entire color spectrum is fascinating, but I loved the nod to artistic types, Purples, in this case, because I felt like I could see myself in this society based on Mickey.
Plot twists and rising stakes are another thing Brown does well– surprising and believable. Constantly, the pressure on Darrow is shifting and mounting as he goes about his quests. Pacing was good from Chapters 9-20 and from Chapter 30 onwards; though, for reasons I’ll get into, the other areas lagged noticeably.
All right, let’s move onto the not-so-good. The thing about Red Rising is that its popularity moved in the same way that Darrow’s does– meteoric fame, with a ton of fans overlooking some blatant flaws in their object of adoration. Tons of five- and four-star reviews on Goodreads. A good number of others, though, who saw through some of the fat.
The most blatant, frustrating failure for me is the sheer excess of “telling” in the narration. “Show don’t tell” goes out the window as we’re treated to long, bland descriptions of emotions and landscapes that could have been enhanced had the author condensed them to a few, “showing” sentences. These lines quickly became boring and seemed like a cheap way out of the initial imagery I’d come to crave from Brown. Some of the most important scenes skimped on description, leaving me wanting more; while other times, we spend pages and pages in the woods (namely in chapters 20-30 where the action severely drops off) doing nothing.
The narration– along with Darrow’s character– frequently errs on the cliché, purple-prose-elevated side. Contrived speeches by teenagers and politicians grated on my nerves because they didn’t come across as believable. “Why would the Reds swallow the rhetoric floating around when it sounded so incredibly insincere?” I wondered. “How do Darrow and his friends spout on-the-spot monologues that sound like they came out of a play…?”
Darrow’s “special snowflake” rise to being an object of practical worship was also difficult to stomach. The problem isn’t his hubris– that’s common, especially in classic Greek literature, which receives many, many references in this book. The problem is Darrow’s success at 85% of first-time endeavors. The fact that he’s the first one to think of the kinds of rebellion he does.
Lastly, there are also a handful of POV problems– first person slip-ups, i.e., “My eyes burned with anger.” Sorry, Darrow…Even special snowflakes can’t see their own eyeballs.
So, to wrap up, I’m going to personally give Red Rising 3 stars. The imagery, world, and developments were done really well. The narration lacked. The protagonist got on my nerves at times, and appealed to me at others. Mickey’s awesome. Pierce Brown has a great imagination. Not my favorite novel of all time, but definitely a colorful-smoothie, game-of-Risk trip for the mind.
Have you read Red Rising? Have any thoughts on it, or sci-fi in general? Leave a comment and tell me what you think!