Incredibly, man has been fascinated with Mars for millennia. For more than four thousand years, we’ve wondered what might be out there, up there. Now we know: some rocks, some regolith, and the occasional frozen lake.
The drab reality of the red planet might pale in comparison to all the otherworldly wonders we’ve imagined in our science and science fiction, but that hasn’t stopped us from dispatching exploratory probes and planning manned missions. More than that: we’ve considered colonising its canyons—overcoming the challenges of its harsh environment and making Mars a home away from home—though those days are a fair ways away, I’m afraid.
Part the first of an ambitious trilogy by Pierce Brown, Red Rising takes place in a future where these distant dreams have been realised... not that the Golds who live the high life here have elected to tell the Reds whose blood, sweat and tears made man’s occupation of Mars viable. Rather, the Reds are perpetually mislead: they labour away in craters and caves under the impression that they will be rewarded for their hard work one day, when others come.
But others are already here. They have been for hundreds of years; hundreds of years during which generations of Reds have dug and danced and died none the wiser, including our protagonist Darrow’s dad:
I never thought my father would do the Devil’s Dance, what the oldfolk call death by hanging. He was a man of words and peace. But his notion was freedom, laws of our own. His dreams were weapons. His legacy is the Dancer’s Rebellion. It died with him on the scaffold. Nine men at once doing the Devil’s Dance, kicking and flailing, till only he was left.
It wasn’t much of a rebellion; they thought peaceful protest would convince the Society to increase the food rations. So they performed the Reaping Dance in front of the gravLifts and removed bits of machinery from the drills so that they wouldn’t work. The gambit failed. Only winning the Laurel can get you more food.
When Darrow, a Helldiver, is cheated out of the quarterly Laurel he has risked life and limb to win, he realises the system is rigged. Then when his peaceful wife Eo does the Devil’s Dance herself, simply for singing a protest song, the grief drives Darrow mad. Against the law, he buries Eo’s body, and is promptly hanged himself. One way or the other, in death as in the days they shared, he wants to be with her:
My people sing, we dance, we love. That is our strength. But we also dig. And then we die. Seldom do we get to choose why. That choice is power. That choice has been our only weapon. But it is not enough.
But he does not die. Instead, he awakens in the care of a cell of Red rebels who show him the rich cities that have been hidden from him and his. They fashion for our humble Helldiver a false identity. They remake him, body if not soul, as a gorydamned Gold, and when he has healed, he sets about inserting himself into the highest zones of society. To secure a position of power that he might use to finally free his people, however, he will have to win a competition. A merciless battle of tactics:
“We want you to show us your brilliance. Life Alexander. Like Ceasar, Napoleon, and Merrywater. We want you to manage an army, distribute justice, arrange for provisions of food and armour. Any fool can stick a blade into another’s belly. The school’s role is to find the leaders of men, not the killers of men. So the point, you silly little children, is not to kill, but to conquer. And how do you conquer in a game where there are eleven other enemy tribes?”
No one answers.
“You make one tribe out of twelve,” I finally say. “By taking slaves.”
Just like the Society. Build on the backs of others. It isn’t cruel. It is practical.
To overthrow the Golds, Darrow will have to think like a Gold, but when he starts making friends amongst his eternal enemies, he realises how perilously thin the line between pretending and being may be...
On the surface, Red Rising resembles any number of other genre novels of note, but dig a little deeper, as our revolutionary Red does, to reveal real uniqueness: in Brown’s nearly seamless assemblage of several time-tested traditions, if not in a great many of his debut’s myriad threads independently.
The beginning, for instance, is reminiscent of the decent dystopias we’ve been treated to in recent years, like Lauren Oliver’s and Veronica Roth’s. What sets the first act apart is Mars; is the prodigious promise of revolution on the red planet. Sadly Brown has so many cards in his hand in terms of narrative and character that that the question of Red Rising’s setting goes unanswered for the larger part.
All too soon this short section segues into a few fantastic chapters in the mode of Man Plus, as our Red rises in society’s eyes, then into a tactical take on The Hunger Games. Indeed, the competition between the Institute’s twelve tribes dominates the novel, but Brown doesn’t simply follow Suzanne Collins’ formula. His games are far darker than those Katniss survived, and more about strategy than action; furthermore they favour filth over fashion.
However the many houses become jumbled. It’s true that Brown bites off more than he can chew in this bit of the book. But Red Rising gets better. Its final act, in fact, is like a heart attack: a no-holds-barred bastard of a finale in which the author gathers a spread of elements together in much the same way George R. R. Martin’s does in the best and most brutal bits of his bestselling saga.
On paper, such a sheer sprawl of story should make for a disconnected reading experience at best, but no. Each section leads naturally, narratively, to the next. That said, though there is some small crossover, each section also has its own cast of characters, to wit few among the many are developed extensively. Despite this their shifting dynamics add depth, and Red Rising has a certain texture too, equal parts dirt, rust and blood.
For once I would have loved more in the way of worldbuilding, and Brown could have made the most of a longer novel by exploring a few of his fiction’s most interesting figures further, but it bears remembering that Red Rising is only the beginning of a trilogy—which is to say there’s space and time for this impressive young author to work out its biggest kinks.
Red Rising wouldn’t exist without the countless classics it takes its cues from, but this great debut builds a formidable fortress upon their familiar foundations, making such interesting alterations along the way that its piecemeal parts are essentially rendered unrecognisable. Like mankind has in the past, Pierce Brown reaches for the stars, and mostly hits that monumental mark.
Red Rising is available January 28th from Random House.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.