Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Red Rising Book Cover Red Rising
Pierce Brown

Darrow is a Helldiver, one of a thousand men and women who live in the vast caves beneath the surface of Mars. Generations of Helldivers have spent their lives toiling to mine the precious elements that will allow the planet to be terraformed. Just knowing that one day people will be able to walk the surface of the planet is enough to justify their sacrifice. The Earth is dying, and Darrow and his people are the only hope humanity has left.

Until the day Darrow learns that it is all a lie. Mars is habitable - and indeed has been inhabited for generations by a class of people calling themselves the Golds. The Golds regard Darrow and his fellows as slave labour, to be exploited and worked to death without a second thought.

With the help of a mysterious group of rebels, Darrow disguises himself as a Gold and infiltrates their command school, intent on taking down his oppressors from the inside.

But the command school is a battlefield. And Darrow isn't the only student with an agenda...

Review:

(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.

Review: 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

100 Sideways Miles Book Cover 100 Sideways Miles
Andrew Smith

Finn Easton sees the world through miles instead of minutes. It’s how he makes sense of the world, and how he tries to convince himself that he’s a real boy and not just a character in his father’s bestselling cult-classic book. Finn has two things going for him: his best friend, the possibly-insane-but-definitely-excellent Cade Hernandez, and Julia Bishop, the first girl he’s ever loved.

Then Julia moves away, and Finn is heartbroken. Feeling restless and trapped in the book, Finn embarks on a road trip with Cade to visit their college of choice in Oklahoma. When an unexpected accident happens and the boys become unlikely heroes, they take an eye-opening detour away from everything they thought they had planned—and learn how to write their own destiny.

Review:

Phew…my head is spinning right now. I’m not really sure what to think of this book. On the one hand, 100 Sideways Miles features great characters who are entertaining and hilarious. On the other hand, it is also random and – as much as I hate to say it – kind of pointless.

In a way, 100 Sideways Miles reminds me a bit of The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand. In addition to not having any discernible message or point, both books follow a male protagonist who feels as if he’s trapped, stuck on a path he can’t get off of no matter how much he tries. In the case of 100 Sideways Miles, this protagonist is Finn Easton, an epileptic boy with a tragic childhood and an author father whose wildly popular sci-fi novel features a character based on his son.

Finn is a little peculiar. He measures life in distance, not time – something to do with the speed the Earth travels – and gets pretty philosophical about things like atoms and stars and molecules. He hates that his father’s book has made parts of his life public and feels he can’t live his own life, be his own person, etc., etc. I didn’t have a lot of patience for this. Apart from “borrowing” parts of Finn for his novel, Finn’s dad does not in any way pressure Finn to be a certain type of person or live his life a certain way. It made no sense to me why Finn feels so trapped or why the sci-fi book causes him to go through a mini existential crisis.

Then again, there’s not a whole lot in this book that does make sense. It’s a bizarre hodgepodge of random tidbits that don’t really have a point but are nonetheless a lot of fun. There’s Finn’s wacky school, which has an all-boys German Dance Club and a history teacher who frequently comes to class costumed as Betsy Ross, Charles Lindberg, a Nazi, etc. There’s Laika, Finn’s rat terrier, who likes to roll around on the carcasses of dead animals. There are jaunts to an abandoned penitentiary, road trips to Oklahoma, random ghost appearances, and dead horses that fall out of the sky. There’s a lot of cursing and vomiting and talk about erections. The whole book is just weird and funny and completely out of left field.

It’s also entertaining, due primarily to Cade Hernandez, Finn’s best friend. Cade is one of the most memorable – and outlandish – characters I’ve ever come across. He’s gross and hilarious and annoying and spectacular all at once. He’s got a knack for stirring up trouble, an astonishing ability to get people to do whatever he wants, and is capable of convincing the entire student body to participate in wild schemes. He’s popular, intelligent, insane, courageous, and strange, and I absolutely loved him. Here are a couple of quotes about Cade:

“Cade Hernandez was the kind of kid you’d dedicate hundred-foot-high monuments to, just so he wouldn’t kill you with his lethal powers of annoyance.”

And:

“Cade smiled and kept his unblinking eyes focused on our teacher. It was a look that was particular to Cade Hernandez – a seducer’s look. It was magical and unavoidable and caused women to willingly enslave themselves to him. And I’ll admit it – sometimes when Cade Hernandez looked at me with that particular expression, I’d get flustered and embarrassed and have to turn away in frustration and sexual doubt.”

The boy has no shame; he frequently announces his masturbatory habits to the world, asks questions about boners in class, and gets Finn into all kinds of trouble. And yet you can’t help but love him. He’s all himself, all the time, and he’s my favorite part of this book.

Watching Cade and Finn interact is hilarious. If there’s one thing that Andrew Smith excels at, it’s writing great bromances. It was evident in Winger, and it’s evident in 100 Sideways Miles. Whether they’re hanging out at baseball practice, sitting in class, lounging by the pool, or getting into trouble, Finn and Cade are hysterical together. The ribbing and banter between them is stellar, and there’s a scene where the boys go to a 7-Eleven to buy condoms that had me laughing till I cried.

As much as I was entertained by 100 Sideways Miles, I still wish there’d been a little more meaning to it. If you’re simply looking for fun and laughter this book may be a good choice for you, but if you want something more I’d look elsewhere.