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: Dualed by Elsie Chapman

Dualed Book Cover Dualed
Elsie Chapman

The city of Kersh is a haven, but the price of safety is high. Everyone has a genetic Alternate, a twin raised by another family, and teens must prove their worth by eliminating their Alts before their twentieth birthday. Survival means advanced schooling, a good job, marriage – life.

West Grayer has trained as a fighter, preparing for the day when her assignment arrives and she will have one month to hunt down and kill her Alt. But a tragic misstep shakes West’s confidence. Stricken with grief and guilt, she’s no longer certain that she’s the best version of herself, the version worthy of a future. If she is to have any chance of winning, she must stop running not only from her Alt, but also from love…though both have the power to destroy her.

Review:

I’m amazed. I had no idea that a book containing as many life-or-death situations as Dualed could be so incredibly boring.

I was completely underwhelmed by this book, which is disappointing – the idea behind it had so much promise.  As mentioned in the blurb, Kersh, the futuristic city in which the story takes place, is a walled stronghold in North America. It was built to protect those who live there from the war and violence that dominates the rest of the world. In exchange for safety, the citizens of Kersh must prove themselves worthy of the city’s hospitality. They do so by fighting against their genetic Alternate until only the smarter, tougher twin is left standing, thus ensuring that Kersh has an army of capable soldiers available to fight in case of an outside attack. It’s Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” concept taken to the extreme.

A story idea like this one has tremendous potential, but that potential is undermined by the fact that almost nothing that happens in this book makes any sense. I found myself questioning just about every move and decision the characters make, as these moves seem to be completely counterintuitive.

I try very hard not to include spoilers in my reviews, but in this case I’m making an exception. If you plan to read this book, you shouldn’t read anything below this point.

Early in the book, West, the protagonist, discovers that there is a group of assassins, called Strikers, who can be hired to illegally kill a person’s Alternate for a large fee. The leader of the Strikers justifies his occupation by stating that it’s wrong for the government to use the Alternate rivalry to decide which person is worthy of survival; just because someone is willing and able to murder his/her genetic twin doesn’t mean they’re the better of the pair.

I agree with that sentiment, but what I don’t understand is how the Strikers assassinating Alternates makes for a fairer system. Accepting money to act as hitmen serves only to ensure that wealthier Alternates survive rather than Alternates who are better fighters, which doesn’t seem to be much of an improvement over the current system. It’d be different if the Strikers secretly followed Alternates around to determine which is the kinder, more decent human being, and then killed the lesser of the two, but that isn’t the case here. It’s all for profit, nothing more and nothing less.

Despite the Strikers’ lack of proper reasoning, West decides to join their ranks, thinking that killing other people’s Alternates will give her enough practice to increase her chances of killing her own. Again, this seems illogical to me. If West is afraid she’s not skilled enough to kill her Alternate without practice, how on Earth does she expect to murder dozens of other people? Also, doesn’t it seem counterintuitive to put herself in dangerous situations multiple times in order to “make it safer” when she and her Alternate ultimately fight their final battle?

Another thing that bothers me is West’s determination to push away Chord, a childhood friend and the closest thing she has left to family. She’s afraid that his affection for her will put him in danger, that he’ll want to be by her side when it’s time for her to fight her Alternate. This makes her do everything in her power to distance herself from Chord in order to keep him safe. I can understand why she might wish to do so, but she never seems to realize that attempting to separate herself from Chord just makes him more persistent in his efforts to stick by her. Because West refuses to keep in contact with him and update him on her safety, Chord must resort to tailing her all across town to make sure that she’s okay, thereby putting himself in more danger than if West had just allowed him to tag along in the first place. West sees that this is happening but still insists on pushing Chord away regardless of how ineffective it is to do so.

These are only a few examples of the many illogical situations and decisions in Dualed, so numerous that I just couldn’t get past them. It didn’t help that there are jarring sections in the novel where weeks pass from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next, making the story jump around in a way that is confusing. I gave up trying to make sense of this story and instead focused on getting to the end as quickly as possible.