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: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Grave Mercy Book Cover Grave Mercy
Robin LaFevers

Escaping from the brutality of an arranged marriage, seventeen-year-old Ismae finds sanctuary at the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts – and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must be willing to take the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany, where she must pose as mistress to the darkly mysterious Gavriel Duval, who has fallen under a cloud of suspicion. Once there, she finds herself woefully underprepared – not only for the deadly games of love and intrigue, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

Review:

I started off feeling quite enthusiastic about Grave Mercy. The beginning of the book reminded me a lot of Poison Study, and also a bit of Crown Duel, as it features a strong, capable heroine struggling to keep up with the intrigues of court; a mysterious hero who is alternately alluring and dangerous; and a treacherous plot that must be uncovered and stopped before it is too late. As I read on, however, my initial excitement faded as the mysterious hero and court intrigue failed to measure up to my expectations.

Said hero, Gavriel Duval, was probably the biggest disappointment. I had such high hopes for him, as he seemed to be a great match for Ismae, the book’s feisty assassin protagonist. He’s dangerous, sexy, and capable of meeting any challenge, the type of character who would make either a formidable opponent or a powerful ally. Anticipating all sorts of daring hijinks and near-death experiences, I couldn’t wait to discover what dangerous situations Duval and Ismae would find themselves in at the royal court of Brittany.

The reality fell far short of my imagination. Duval’s loyalty to the Duchess of Brittany requires him to spend the majority of his time debating political alliances or attending privy council meetings. While I got the impression that there is a capable, deadly side to Duval, I seldom got to see it in action, as Duval was generally acting in the role of politician rather than soldier. With the exception of one or two brief fight scenes, he paces, broods, and strategizes more than he does anything else.

Another letdown was the plot. I enjoyed the air of mystery and liked that it was Ismae’s mission to protect the Duchess of Brittany from traitors in her court. However, like Duval, the storyline stops short of being as amazing as it has the potential to be. For example, there isn’t nearly enough tension surrounding Ismae’s day-to-day life in the royal court. There is little to no cattiness, gossip, or manipulation going on, which is disappointingly unrealistic, especially considering that all of the courtiers assume Ismae to be the mistress of the most influential man in the kingdom. I had hoped for scenes in which Ismae must contend with jealous rivals, judgmental old biddies, or handsome yet wily casanovas, but said scenes never transpired.

Despite these disappointments, I did enjoy reading Grave Mercy. This is mostly because of Ismae, the novel’s saving grace. In the beginning I was worried that she might become one of those protagonists who is so strong and capable that she is impossible to relate to, but this fear turned out to be unfounded. Ismae’s prodigious talent for poisoning, disemboweling, and otherwise incapacitating foes is tempered by her lack of social and relationship skills. Ismae is closed off, has a hard time trusting people, and struggles to convincingly play the role of a seductress. She possesses fears, doubts, and a degree of self-consciousness that is at odds with her physical strength. These vulnerabilities went a long way toward endearing her to me.

Another great thing about Grave Mercy is that it’s set in a historical period with which I’m not very familiar. I appreciated reading a regency novel that wasn’t based in Tudor England, and it was a good opportunity to learn about a new era. I was struck by just how authentic the characters’ language and behavior feels and was so relieved to find that there were no jarring sentences or turns of phrase to ruin the flow and throw me out of the time period.

All in all, Grave Mercy is a decent book, and I did like reading it, even if Duval didn’t turn out to be the next Valek or Marquis of Shevraeth. Therefore, if you liked Poison Study and have come to terms with the fact that no other novel can quite measure up to it, then Grave Mercy might be a good book for you.

Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Throne of Glass Book Cover Throne of Glass
Sarah J. Maas

After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin. Her opponents are men-thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the king's council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she'll serve the kingdom for three years and then be granted her freedom.

Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilarating. But she's bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her... but it's the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.

Then one of the other contestants turns up dead... quickly followed by another.

Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.

Review:

I’m a fan of strong female characters in books. Forget damsels in distress who sit around wringing their hands and yearning for a hero to come and rescue them – I like a girl with spunk, wit, and the ability to take care of herself. That being said, however, there’s a fine line between a strong, independent heroine and a heroine who’s seemingly invincible.

Believable characters must have some sort of weakness or vulnerability. Celaena Sardothien, the protagonist in Throne of Glass, is lacking this, making it very difficult for me to really feel invested in the book. From the very beginning, Celaena is an uninteresting heroine because she’s just too perfect. Even when she’s competing against the biggest, baddest, toughest fighters around, she has no worthy opponents. It seems like every third paragraph is about how easy it would be to disarm the dozen trained soldiers surrounding her, or how laughable it is that the captain of the king’s guard believes manacles and chains can contain her. I get that she’s an assassin, but come on. Her strategic and physical prowess requires no effort whatsoever, making it lose all meaning.

I also would have appreciated more of an emotional range for Celaena than just arrogance and anger. If she has to be a physical and tactical prodigy, she should at least have some more emotional vulnerability. Fear, doubt, loneliness, alienation, guilt…there’s an entire array of feelings that the author could have used to make Celaena a little more relatable. Her occasional nightmares and a flash or two of nervousness are not enough to make her believable, and that’s a serious flaw of the book.

One thing that I did enjoy about Throne of Glass was the ending. I don’t want to give anything away, but I appreciate that the love triangle (if you can even call it that – one side of that triangle was rather underdeveloped) didn’t have a clear-cut resolution.

I won’t go so far as saying that Throne of Glass is terrible, but it’s certainly not one I’d recommend.  There are better and brighter books out there that you should be reading instead.

Review: Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead

Vampire Academy Book Cover Vampire Academy
Richelle Mead

St. Vladimir’s Academy isn’t just any boarding school—it’s a hidden place where vampires are educated in the ways of magic and half-human teens train to protect them. Rose Hathaway is a Dhampir, a bodyguard for her best friend Lissa, a Moroi Vampire Princess. They’ve been on the run, but now they’re being dragged back to St. Vladimir’s—the very place where they’re most in danger...

Rose and Lissa become enmeshed in forbidden romance, the Academy’s ruthless social scene, and unspeakable nighttime rituals. But they must be careful lest the Strigoi—the world’s fiercest and most dangerous vampires—make Lissa one of them forever.

Review:

Oh, Vampire Academy, I had such high hopes for you. I read such great things about your characters and your plot that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on you, but once I did…you were a big, fat, letdown.

I just didn’t find this book entertaining. I had a hard time making it through to the end, and the only thing that kept me from giving up on it was an absurd hope that it would miraculously becoming interesting at the end. Unfortunately, it didn’t. The plot was anticlimactic, and I can’t say I was really interested in any of the characters. Rose, the protagonist, is the only person in the book who has any spunk, but she’s a bit too abrasive for me to find likeable.

In addition to the utter lack of excitement, another problem I had with Vampire Academy was that I didn’t find it very convincing. I was unclear on the “rules” of the vampire world. For example, the vampire teenagers drink alcohol at parties, so does this mean they’re also able to eat regular food in addition to drinking blood? And why on earth do the students who are training to become vampire bodyguards study such ridiculous subjects? “Bodyguard Theory and Personal Protection” makes sense, but “Slavic Art” and “Animal Behavior and Physiology?” Really?

I also had a hard time buying into the strength of Lissa and Rose’s friendship. Lissa comes off as weak and bland, and Rose has the opposite problem of being snarky and arrogant; I just couldn’t understand what they see in each other. I suppose that their bond could be partially explained by the fact that they have a long history together, what with it being Rose’s duty to protect and defend Lissa. Still, I’m not convinced that this would add up to the unwavering love and devotion the two of them supposedly feel for one another. Loyalty is one thing; deep and abiding friendship is another entirely.

There are a few positives about this book. There are some humorous scenes that I appreciated, especially the witty banter between Rose and her male classmates. I also enjoyed a certain steamy scene that comes toward the end of the novel. Otherwise, though, I was definitely unimpressed.

I’ve heard that Vampire Academy is the weak link in this series and that the books get progressively better as they go on. I guess I’ll never know for sure, though, as I have no intentions of reading the next installment. If Mead didn’t thrill me with book number one, why should I trust her to do so with book number two?