When I started Pierce Brown’s “Red Rising” ($25, Del Rey), I spent a lot of time thinking that I’d read this book before. By the end, though, Brown had used some great storytelling to leave me hanging on every word.
Darrow is a Red, the lowest rung on the social ladder. He’s a miner in a colony on Mars, but not just any miner. Darrow is a Helldiver, which means he goes into the dangerous caverns – filled with explosive gases and deadly pit vipers – to harvest all-important Helium-3. He and his kind are pioneers, collecting the element that makes terraforming possible and paving the way for the human race to colonize the stars, where all of the Colors will live in harmony.
Or so he’s been told.
What Darrow believes to be the truth begins to unravel after he risks his life to win the laurel for his clan of Lambda. The laurel, presented by the ruling Golds to the most successful mining team, will mean more food, medical and other necessary supplies for his people. When the laurel arrives, though, Darrow’s victory turns to bitter ashes as it is presented to Gamma, the clan that always wins it.
That disappointment sets off a series of events that leads Darrow to the discovery that all he’s been told is a lie. The human race has already colonized Mars, and numerous other planets. The Golds have been living in luxury on the surface for hundreds of years, profiting on the sweat of his people.
On the surface, “Red Rising” tells a familiar dystopian tale. The human race has been divided into a strict caste system. An excelling member of the lowest caste discovers the truth about how society operates and sets out to change it. It’s the basis for any number of works in the subgenre.
Darrow, though, makes a very reluctant rebel. Even after discovering he’s been lied to, he’d still much rather live an uncomfortable life with those he loves than challenge authority and bring the wrath of the Golds. Once in the role, though, he embraces it, becoming brutally efficient and focused on accomplishing his goal by any means necessary.
The comparison to “Lord of the Flies” also must be made as the novel progresses, though I don’t really want to wade too deep into those events since Brown delivers some nice twists and surprises that I really don’t want to hint at in any way.
He also strikes an interesting balance between the more YA approach and the darker and more violent tone often associated with “grimdark” authors. He finds a sweet spot, making it grittier and uglier than the average YA tale, but never veering into territory that might be inappropriate for that audience, either. The result is a book that can be enjoyed by fans of good speculative fiction of any age.
Oh, and there’s a nice tip of the hat to Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game,” too.
What ultimately makes “Red Rising” rise above similar stories is Brown’s storytelling. He builds great tension, ratcheting it up throughout the course of the story and pulling the reader along, eager to find out what happens next. He’s done it so well that the second volume, “Golden Son,” has moved to the top of my reading list for 2015.