Pierce Brown (pierce-brown.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
I would have lived in peace. But my enemies brought me war.
It is a world in which humanity has evolved into a colour-coded caste system, with Reds – manual labourers and menial workers – at the bottom, and the spoilt, rich Golds at the top. Deep under the surface of Mars, mining colonies, manned by Reds, are involved in the excavation of helium-3, a mineral that is crucial for the terraforming of Mars, and further colonies beyond. The Reds are heroes – or so the propaganda tells them – sacrificing themselves for the betterment and continued existence of their fellow human beings.
Darrow is a Helldiver, a drill operator on a mining crew, who is happy with his lot. When his wife is executed for sedition, Darrow decides to do the unthinkable – he steals her body from the gallows and buries her. Sentenced to hang himself, Darrow is surprised to find himself alive and well, and in the company of the Sons of Ares, a terrorist band whose sole purpose is the freedom of the Reds of Mars. The propaganda is not true: Mars has been settled for hundreds of years and the Reds continue to toil underground with no hope of ever claiming the reward they have been promised for all these years. But this is their chance to get what is rightfully theirs, and Darrow is the only man who can help them achieve their ends. There is only one catch: he must become a Gold and force change from the inside.
From the opening of Pierce Brown’s debut novel, Red Rising, we find ourselves in the head of Darrow, a young hothead who is dedicated to his job and his colony, and deeply in love with his young wife. It is through the eyes of this young man that we first discover the underground world of Mars and – much later – the planet of beautiful, towering cities that exists above their heads. The son of a man hanged for trying to help his people gain their freedom, it quickly becomes apparent that Darrow has married a young girl who shares the same views. "Live for more" she tells her husband at the heart-breaking moment of her death – heart-breaking for the reader despite how early in the book it comes, purely because of how invested we become in the world that Darrow inhabits. When, shortly afterwards, Darrow learns the truth of the Reds’ situation, we watch as understanding slowly dawns and a thirst for vengeance becomes moulded by the Sons of Ares into a desire for freedom for his people, at any cost.
Brown has created a fantastical world where racism has been taken to the extreme. No longer is a person’s race simply an accident of birth, but the result of genetic engineering that defines not only one’s station in life, but also one’s skill-set and vocational leanings – Red for manual work; Copper for bureaucracy; Black for military service; Pink for pleasure. At the top of the pyramid, the cruel and cold Golds, who have practically destroyed the human race as we, the reader, know it,in their quest for complete control, the overthrow of Demokracy, and the founding of the Society. There is something faintly suggestive in Brown’s language, and the naming of the various factions that exist in this brave new world; a warning for Twenty-first Century humanity, a brief glimpse of what may lie in our – admittedly distant – future.
When Darrow finds himself inducted into the Institute – the school that selects the cream of the Gold population – we begin to see a world much different to the colonies below Mars’ surface. There is a distinctly Roman feel to this rich society, even down to the names of its members (Cassius, Julian, Virginia) and it becomes clear quite quickly that that ancient civilisation has been used as a role model for this new one. At the Institute, the students are split into Houses based on their traits, and set against each other in a year-long battle that will see only one victor. Darrow is under immense pressure to win if his plans to defeat the Golds from the inside is to have any chance of success. Despite the fact that there is no secret that this is the first book of a trilogy, there is still no certainty that Darrow will be successful in his mission. Let’s face it, when your narrator dies at the end of the first section of the first book, nothing is ever guaranteed.
I feel the door beneath me open. My body falls. Rope flays my neck. My spine creaks. Needles lance my lumbar. Kieran stumbles forward. Uncle Narol shoves him away. With a wink, he touches my feet and pulls.
I hope they do not bury me.
There is an indefinable quality to Red Rising that sets it above other novels in the same genre (it has been favourably compared with Orson Scott Card’s Ender novels – with a sly mention of young Master Wiggin in the same breath as the likes of Alexander and Caeser – and The Hunger Games, to name but a few). Once we meet Darrow and understand the position he is in, the book is almost impossible to set aside, for even the briefest of moments. The action is relentless, despite the span of time it covers (this first book in the trilogy runs from an arbitrary point shortly before everything changes for Darrow, through his transformation from Red to Gold, and the duration of his stay at the Institute) and with every turn of the page we find out something new about this strange new world. The fact that we find ourselves in Darrow’s head means that we’re learning the ropes here along with him, and unnecessary exposition is kept to a minimum.
The mix of far-future science fiction and ancient civilisation is reminiscent of Dan Simmons’ Ilium/Olympus novels (Roman here rather than Simmons’ Greek story), although the similarity ends there. Pierce Brown has very quickly and very adeptly created a world and a people that feels like a natural evolution of the world in which we live today, and which we find ourselves accepting without question. In Darrow he has created a leading man that we can follow without question, a man who will always be the hero, despite the difficult choices he must make. As he settles into the mind-set of the Golds who surround him, he becomes more like them, without ever losing the core that makes us root for his success. The themes of oppression and slavery are the obvious ones to take away from this story, but there is a deeper, more tender core built around love, family and, most of all, trust – the simple fact that not everyone is the same, despite their heritage, their genes; a message that should be obvious to all, but is often lost in the very black and white world in which we live.
Red Rising is a spectacular debut that endures beyond the final page. Set in an interesting world that, despite the obvious differences, really isn’t that far removed from our own, and peopled by characters that warrant our continued attention, it is a novel that demands to be read in as few sittings as possible. Fast-paced, action-packed, engrossing and wonderfully addictive, Red Rising marks the entrance of a fine new voice in science fiction, a young writer of immense talent who knows how to tell a story, and how to keep us coming back for more. This is a book you won’t want to miss, but be warned: once you’ve finished, you won’t want to wait for the next instalment of the trilogy.