There’s a certain portentousness to Red Rising, as if it knows its the header to the next giant YA franchise; its protagonist, Darrow, the next Katniss or Ender. There’s even a movie adaptation in the works.
That’s not to say the hype is entirely undeserved, though.
Red Rising is a formidable debut. It’s well-paced, cinematic, and epic. It draws from well-defined narrative stock that resonates with established tradition. Its got a compelling (even if slightly unbelievable and shonen-esque) character arc in the form of its protagonist, Darrow. It seems like it was written just to be the source material for a big-budget movie tie in.
But what, I think, sets it apart from other dystopian YA novels of its ilk is that it isn’t just psychologically aware, but politically aware as well.
This is a fictional dystopia in which the things that the great do to oppress the small make sense. There is a keen awareness of how power operates. The Society of Red Rising is built upon a well-trodden trope: the Brave New World-esque separation of society into strictly hierarchical castes. At the top, the Golds rule as philosopher-kings, propagating their power through levels of influence, coercion and deception, all the way to the bottom, where Reds perform the hard menial tasks that keep the society operating.
It is a society that is run according to Platonic precepts – that each person knows his or her exact place in the hierarchical pyramid, and is kept in that place by deception, religion and the divide-and-conquer practices of their superiors. On the top, the Gold philosopher-kings legitimize their rule by being as ruthless to themselves as they are to their servants – honing their military, administrative and warrior prowess through participation in the Darwinian culling process of the Institute.
It’s a rich, compellingly envisioned fictive world inspired by one of the oldest pieces of political philosophy known to us – Plato’s Republic.
But Brown deconstructs this vision of aristocracy for us, by showing the cracks in the regime that devolve from the imperfectability of its ostensible leaders – the venality that corruption that seems endemic to the human condition, even among these godlike Golds with their Olympian stature. The fact is, in a vision of society built upon any assumption that man can be perfected, is a society doomed to collapse.
The first book is about Darrow’s rise. Darrow is Red, the lowest caste, working in the mines of Mars to extract helium-3 fuel to power the ships of the civilisation. After his wife is executed by the Society for sedition against the Society, he is taken by members of the resistance movement, the Sons of Ares, bio-engineered to become a Gold, and told to infiltrate their ranks in order to destroy them from within.
Darrow tells the tale in present tense, with immediacy and gravitas. His is the somewhat derivative but still well-executed character arc of an emerging hero, a man with the potential for greatness, but who nevertheless must grow into his role. Red Rising details that character arc, and chronicles his development as a leader, but one who gains the legitimacy to rule not through fear and coercion, but through inspiring his followers, earning their trust and willing loyalty.
There is an interesting tension, though, because even as Darrow aspires to become the philosopher-king that is the Platonic ideal to which the Society aspires, he is at the same time the ostensible seed of its destruction. Darrow must become a perfect Gold to destroy them. This tension provides for some character interest. It is this tension that forces Darrow to make second-best choices that do not befit his character arc. Ultimately, he is an agent-provocateur and must do the less than honorable in order to fulfill his greater mission – to topple the Society and act as a beacon of hope and liberation, not for the Golds, but for the lower Colors.
Red Rising’s world is also well-realized, with a compelling cultural and literary aesthetic. Although the culture of the Golds is based on a mishmash of Roman and Spartan influences, the aesthetic is Golden Age Science fiction, with humans terraforming the worlds of the Solar System, where Mars is a desert oasis, where pitched battles are fought in the forested vales of the Valles Marineris. It has a very Old Mars sensibility to it.
All in all, Red Rising is a promising debut that offers more depth, texture and verisimilitude than your average YA dystopian novel, and while a little derivative and seemingly engineered for the silver screen, is somewhat smarter and more politically aware than it might let on.
I give this book: 4 upon 5 razor whips