(Actual rating: 4.5 stars)
Red Rising is definitely one of those books that improves with re-reading. It’s been touted as the next big thing, a book that will knock you off your feet and fill the void left by The Hunger Games. When I finished my first read of the book, I couldn’t decide whether the hype was justified or not; Brown blew me away in the first few chapters, failed to wow me in the next few, and then alternated between “pretty good” and “outstanding” for the remainder of the book.
There were times when I struggled with the believability of Brown’s world, when I felt he wasn’t being consistent with his characterization or was losing the thread of his story. At other times, though, there were moments of true greatness, where I glimpsed the tremendous potential of this trilogy.
When six months had gone by and I still couldn’t stop thinking about Red Rising, I decided to buy a copy and read it again. The second time, I was blown away. I found myself describing it to friends as “epic,” “spectacular,” and “out of this world,” and it’s become one of my favorite books.
Red Rising takes place on Mars hundreds of years in the future, when a person’s station and function are determined by the Color they’re born into. The Reds, for example, are tasked with toiling in the underground mines of Mars to collect the elements that will be used make the planet inhabitable.
One of these Reds is Darrow, a young man respected and loved by his people for his quick hands and sharp mind. Working conditions may be hellish, living conditions bleak, but Darrow is proud to do his part for the good of humanity. His wife, on the other hand, views the Reds’ toil as slavery and urges Darrow to use his reputation and talents to free their people. Darrow, head-over-heels in love with his wife and unwilling to risk her safety and the life they’ve built together, resists.
“What do you live for?” I ask her suddenly. “Is it for me? Is it for family and love? Or is it just for some dream?”
“It’s not just some dream, Darrow. I live for the dream that my children will be born free. That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them.”
“I live for you,” I say sadly.
She kisses my cheek. “Then you must live for more.”
It’s only after tragedy strikes that Darrow is forced to rethink his world view and realize his wife’s dream is one worth fighting for. Transmuted by grief and rage, Darrow joins a rebel force in a plot to bring down the Golds, the elite who rule all the other Colors. Darrow undergoes an extensive and painful transformation to pass as a Gold, the plan being for him to fight the Golds from within and rise through the ranks to a position of influence where he can start a revolution.
The first step in this ascension is to enroll in the Institute, a training ground for young Golds. Unlike traditional schools, the Institute is less of a college, more of an immense, high-stakes game of Capture the Flag or Risk. The students are divided into 12 houses and thrown into the wilderness, the objective being for one house to conquer all of the others.
This is where most people begin comparing Red Rising to The Hunger Games. While there are definite similarities, such as the fact that young people are fighting one another in an arena-like field, there are key differences between the two. The principle way Red Rising differs from The Hunger Games is that the game of Capture the Flag is not a free-for-all where only one can be left standing at the end. To succeed in the Institute you need allies, an army. You need to become a leader, bring people to your side, rally and unite your troops. You need strategy and inspiration. Watching Darrow figure out how to become not just a victor, but a leader and a legend, is one of the biggest selling points of the book.
I would say Red Rising feels more reminiscent of Braveheart than The Hunger Games, mostly due to the setting and to Darrow himself. The game of Capture the Flag is played out in a land of castles, highlands, forests, and vales. There are battle cries, ferocious warriors galloping around on horseback, animal pelts, and war paint. And like William Wallace, Darrow is fighting against oppression and has an inner fire and charisma that win people’s hearts and loyalty.
Darrow is everything you could ask for in an epic hero. For one thing, he’s self-aware and able to make sacrifices and tough decisions because he knows they are required. He regrets some of the things he must do in order to get ahead but recognizes that those actions must be taken in order to realize his wife’s dream. He’s brilliant and strong but not infallible; a leader, but one who must trust and rely on others for his ultimate success. His victories are epic, but so are his failures. I’m in awe of him and can’t wait to see his meteoric rise continue in the rest of this series.
The supporting characters in the Institute also played a huge part in winning me over. Darrow may be the grand hero, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the rest of the story’s cast are lesser beings. There are some serious power players in this book, and they each feel like real, distinct, memorable people. They’re not just characters, they’re titans, and without them Red Rising wouldn’t be half so successful.
Were there problems with Red Rising? Certainly. It can be overwhelming at times, slow at others, and there are moments when it feels like Brown is writing not a story, but Ideas, with a capital “I.” Ultimately, though, this is a brilliant book. It wowed me, moved me, and left me stunned, and I am rabid to know how the trilogy will proceed.