On the front and back covers of Red Rising, the book is compared to The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game and Game of Thrones. Any fan of those novels will easily recognize elements of each in this story. They will also see aspects of Divergent and bits of the Percy Jackson novels. So the story is not original. But it is intriguing and addictive.
On Mars, as in all the galaxy, the color of your caste determines your destiny. Darrow is a red, a low red who works deep under the surface of Mars so that someday his children can live free in the open air the energy he harvests has helped to create. At 16 he is a grown man in the eyes of his society, working all day to bring home a paycheck to his lovely wife Eo. He is fearless and relentless in his pursuit of excellence and is certain he has won the Laurel which will ensure a better way of life for his clan.
But he is wrong. The unfair loss of the Laurel starts an unfortunate chain of events which will lead Darrow to discover that everything he has believed about his world is a lie. While he slaved in the darkness and heat of the interior of the planet, the rich and decadent lived lavishly on the exterior. His children were never going to see the good life they had been promised for their labors, just like he had never seen the fruits of his father’s labors. Then through tragedy Darrow makes a whole new set of friends. Friends who fight to right the injustice of the system they live in, who plan to topple it from within. To that end they mold Darrow, rebuilding him into the kind of boy who tops the leading caste. This enables Darrow to enter the games which determine who among the elite will rule.
We quickly learn that the society in which Darrow lives rewards birth, callousness, cheating and every kind of Machiavellian principle imaginable. The elite rule by right of caste but also by merit of killing each other off, brutalizing each other to reach greater heights within their clans and essentially being mean and nasty. While Darrow finds some humanity among the people he meets he finds only corruption within the system they use to claw their way to the top. Initially he plans to let his hatred guide his social interactions with those around him but he quickly learns that leads to mistakes on his part and return of distrust on theirs. After some stumbles, a lot of luck and a change in the way he treats those around him he becomes a true contender in the games of life and death these children play.
What really works in the story is the fast pacing and frankly the fun you have spotting echoes of other favorite novels. The book didn’t really get going till about page 70 but once it does it has only a brief lag in the action around the middle. Otherwise it is a twisting, twirling, fast paced roller coaster ride to find out just where Darrow will end up. All the kids are in danger but he carries an extra burden of keeping secret who he really is so the stakes are higher for him, the odds longer and that makes for some interesting situations. The ending gives a satisfactory conclusion to the story while setting us up very nicely for book two.
The book’s great weakness though is the fact that we know there will be a book two. Since they never really set up another character for a starring role we know that Darrow will somehow make it out of this mess and that leaves us more with curiosity over how rather than the nail biting anxiety of will he or won’t he make it. A secondary weakness which rivals this one is that the author is so zealous in conglomerating his favorite worlds into a whole new one that he doesn’t build strong characters. That meant that I left the book without really knowing any of the people I left behind. I was interested in what would happen next in the story, in the “how to” if you will of the characters achieving their goals but I was passionless regarding whether they lived or died to achieve them.
Since I’ve mentioned numerous times the influences you will recognize while reading this I want to emphasize that I am not talking about plagiarizing, just echoing. It’s not an exact replica of any work but is clearly inspired by several.
I’ve given the book a relatively high grade because it definitely held my attention (I finished it in day) and the flaws didn’t keep me from being anxious to read book two. I’m interested in seeing where the author is going to take his tale and I’m hoping that the more time I spend with the characters the more in depth I’ll get to know them. If you’re a fan of YA fiction I recommend picking it up. There is a ton of buzz around this book and you are going to want to judge for yourself whether it’s worthy of the attention. I find myself thinking it is.