In his wonderful debut novel published just this year, Pierce Brown introduces us to the world of young Darrow, a resident of Mars. I know! We’re off to good start, and all I said was “Mars.”
Darrow is a Helldiver, the most dangerous job a helium-3 miner can have. How’d our hero draw the short straw? He is a Red, the lowest caste in the color-coded society of his futuristic world; it’s the Red’s job to toil in the mines for the helium-3 necessary to terraform Mars for future colonization on the planet’s surface.
At 16, Darrow is married to his beloved wife Eo. They live under the surface of Mars doing harrowing work, making barely enough to survive. The Golds, the highest caste, control the rations, allocating them based on how much helium-3 is produced. They also allocate justice, if it can be called that: when a Red breaks the Gold’s laws, like Darrow’s father did when he sang the forbidden song, they are hanged. Heartbreakingly, the gravity on Mars is not strong enough to break the neck during hanging, so the Gold’s allow a loved one to pull on the feet of the victim to make death come quicker.
This is the world Darrow knows. He believes his cause, toiling away, is a noble one. Once the planet is livable it will he inhabited by the rest of civilization, and it will have been worth the turmoil to make that happen. So he strives to be the best at what he does and win the Laurel’s bestowed by the Gold’s to the best group of miners. Outside of this ambition, he lives for his wife and nothing but her.
This creates conflict, since his beloved disagrees with his enthusiastic acquiescence. Eo tries to convince her husband to fight for her dream, the same dream that got his father killed: overthrowing the Society and destroying the Golds. Darrow is unwavering, but when Eo makes the decision for him, making a tragic choice, well… his life will never be the same.
Red Rising is, as you can gather from my description of the engrossing particulars, a very exciting read; I was reluctant to put it down until it had told me every last detail about Darrow and his Martian Society. One reason could be Darrow’s exceptional character arc. At first Darrow does not fit the trope of the typical dystopian novel protagonist. We are quite used to seeing young adults who are fed up with the controlling power and who are more than willing to seek a way to change the world while adults hold them back. But Darrow has Eo to care for and a job he’s good at and he makes just enough to scrape by; in general he’s content with his life, hard as it is, and really, he hasn’t a revolutionary inkling in him. It takes a shove from his wife to force his development from naïve boy to resolute man, filled, as he is, with unceasing rage. This man quickly accepts his new goal and does not resist his role in the rebellion. There is personal struggle aplenty, but when that struggle forces him to make hard decisions, the hardened Darrow does not falter. His ambition and intelligence, redirected towards different goals, help him countless times to get out of hot water. Always a driven individual, the rage he feels towards the Golds because of the pain they have caused him drives him forward.
Darrow is a very untrusting fellow, but a few friends – Cassius and Mustang – slip under his hard shell. Still, he doesn’t wholly put his faith in any of them. He keeps a huge secret from his classmates at the Institute and switches loyalties when it’s necessary. Even Mustang, whom he goes out of his way to nurse back to health, proves too easy to ditrust; certain she will betray him, he meets her for the final time prepared to destroy her. The most important thing for Darrow is winning, as it was when he was a simple miner seeking awards; he has to be the best and he has to topple the Golds and the Society. It’s not just revenge for his friends and family that drives him, it’s extremely personal, an internal fire within him which keeps him focused and, truthfully, really pissed off.
So who’s he so darn pissed at? The Golds of Luna rebelled against the tyranny of Earth and freed themselves from the constraints of Democracy and the ‘Noble Lie’ that all men are created equal. Thus began the Society, a system of castes where some men rule while others serve and each person is defined by their color. The highest ranked among the Golds are the Peerless Scarred, those who have gone through the Institute and come out on top of their class. At one point, we hear the Arch Governor Augustus talk about the Society, describing it s having “three stages: Savagery, Ascendance, and Decadence.” The Golds took their freedom with savagery, they ruled in ascension, and now they are doing everything in their power to avoid falling into decadence. In this, we can easily see the arc of some of history’s great (read; fallen) empires: Brown does not just ignore history; instead he weaves it intricately into his tale. The ruling class is very aware of why Empires like Rome fell and uses that history as propaganda meant to prevent a similar fall brought on by comfort. The irony is that, in the society create, anything is decadent compared to the life of a red; the lives of the ruling class passing down edicts on comfort most of all.
Brown does not leave his references to the Roman empire vague. The Roman gods play a large part throughout the novel. Darrow is assigned a persona aligned with the god Mars, the embodiment of masculine aggression and the force that drives war. All of this is very suiting for rage-filled Darrow. Several times in the novel, Darrow is compared to a flame that burns too brightly and burns out quickly. He knows that his mission is a long trek and he must, in spite of his nature, sustain his flame with all the ability he has. Some other prominent gods utilized are Minerva, Pluto, Jupiter, and Ceres. Each other character is assigned one of these gods, giving more insight into that character’s persona. It’s a familiar device, an Olympian sorting hat, if you will. (Each house even has a proctor that acts as the embodiment of that god, and they can bestow gifts or punishment as they see fit.) This sorting helps Darrow understand the other teams and develop strategies that could work to defeat them.
As far as dystopian novels go, this has easily one of my favorites in my favored genre. It is reminiscent of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, but I’d venture to say I enjoyed my time with Darrow more than,my corresponding time with Katniss. That at first he just abides by the rules set up for him, and that he makes a bunch of mistakes along the way but uses these foibles to become something completely different by the end of the novel, these traits make him an extraordinarily realistic protagonist. It matters not that his adventures take place on far away Mars; he is able to accept circumstances that are terrible over and over again and remain focused on his ultimate goals, and that sort of determination will always hit close to home. Overall, we are looking at a great first book by someone who appears to be, from the look of Red Rising, an extremely promising young author. I anxiously await January 2015, which is when the second book in this trilogy, Golden Son, will be released.