Strife on Mars – Red Rising by Pierce Brown

redrisingAny dystopian novel that involves children killing one another is inevitably going to be compared to the Hunger Games. This is probably not a terribly useful thing to do, as the popularity of the Hunger Games far outstrips its quality. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the travails of Katniss when I read them, but the themes and ideas in the Hunger Games have been explored better elsewhere, before and since.

Red Rising does have the pace and excitement of HG, but it also has a better handle on human psychology, making it more reminiscent of Julianna Baggot’s Pure series. Unlike the regime Katniss is subjected to, the striated dystopia that exists in Red Rising is credible. You might actually set up a society that way if you were hell-bent on enslaving sections of the population. It might even work. In this respect the book is far more like Koushun Takami’s masterwork, Battle Royale.

The novel opens with Darrow drilling at the bottom of a very deep mine shaft. Darrow is a ‘Red’, the lowest strata of Mars society. Red’s are manual workers terraforming Mars for the rest of humanity. It’s not an easy life. The Reds sit at the bottom the rainbow. Society is made up of a full spectrum of colours, with each one having its own specific function, most of which are designed to ensure the Reds keep digging.  Sitting atop the chromatic pile are the Golds. To Darrow they are almost living gods. Cruel, impersonal and ruthless.

After Darrow and his wife are sentenced to a brutal whipping, for a minor misdemeanour, events quickly spiral out of control. Before he knows it Darrow is wrenched from his old life to become a cog in the machine of a clandestine group of freedom fighters. A cog maybe, but a vital one. Darrow has been chosen to infiltrate the Golds.

That summary offers little more than the blurb, and it’s hard to review much further without spoiling things. In order to become a Gold and then work his way to the very top, Darrow must enrol in their most deadly games.  What follows is a brutal capture the flag type game that echoes the titles mentioned above. It’s compelling stuff, particularly in the early stages. Darrow must face test after test and even tests within tests. There are several factions, each mirroring aspects of a particular god. The rivalry between factions gives the book and additional dimension, as does the in-fighting within Darrow’s faction. With a group of alphas all vying for control the result is pure Lord of the Flies.

Further tension is added by the need for Darrow to keep his identity secret.  He must trust and be trusted by Golds, the people he hates most in his life. Leaving aside whether it makes sense to run a recruitment process that kills over half of your golden generation and mutilates most of the survivors (though you might wish it when watching the Apprentice), this is an exciting read. I would imagine post traumatic stress disorder most be very common amongst Mars’s upper echelons. The book does require some suspension of belief and the final stages of the trial didn’t really work for me. Having managed so well to keep his story on a human emotional level, Pierce’s final chapters descend into an amorphous melee, which is a shame.

So the book didn’t quite deliver on the promise shown. I’d probably give it silver rather than gold, but there is lots of great stuff here. It’s moving in places, exciting and keeps you guessing as to what’s going on. The final chapters set up nicely for book 2. Unlike the Hunger Games, Red Rising feels like it was always conceived as a multi-part story. Based on the strength of Red Rising, I’m very much looking forward to finding out what Darrow does next.

Many Thanks to Hodder and the team at Bookbridgr for sending me a copy of the book.

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