Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Red Rising

Recently I came across this buzzfeed article about up-and-coming NYT best-selling author Pierce Brown.  His def-con-5 nerd level and the description of his dystopian future novel, Red Rising, intrigued me, so I added it to the list.  After a little more research, reading some brief reviews, and discovering we had a mutual friend, I ordered Brown's novel and bumped it up to my next read.  And I'm glad I did.  This, the first book in the "Red Rising Trilogy" was released less than a month ago.  Since then it's maintained a spot on the NYT best-seller's list, won rave reviews, and Universal has bought the film-rights, with a director and producer already attached.  Everything indicates that this is going to be big!


But let me back up and give my best non-spoilerific summary of Red Rising:
Darrow is a colonist on Mars, born into a color-coded caste-system with Reds - Darrow's people - on the lowest rung and Golds on the very highest.  His community slaves away miles under the surface of Mars, mining materials needed so the Golds can one day terraform their way across the galaxy.  After his wife, Eo, convinces him that freedom is worth any cost, Darrow joins a liberation movement.  But in order to fight for that freedom, he must transform himself into a Gold, attend their prestigious "Institute," and do whatever it takes to infiltrate the highest Gold position possible.

In this world, Brown creates an intense, fast-paced story that examines what freedom means and what it costs. The plot, though tricky at times, is carefully woven and moves incredibly quick.  This includes inciting action(s) extremely early - lots of "They wouldn't actually... Oh my gosh, they are!" moments - creating high stakes early on.  Instead of setting everything up and explaining, Brown does a very good job explaining as he goes, providing clues only as needed.  After reading a few too many first-person, present-tense narrations where I felt a bit smarter than the narrator (Um, hello, Katniss. Guess what - Peeta is only pretending to be a Career to save you), I was grateful that along with Darrow, I was blindsided by one game-changing surprise after another.  Red Rising is one of those books where you might have to cover up the opposite page so as to not spoil one of the many intense moments of the novel.  These were such proper jaw-dropping, hand-over-mouth shocks that, even though I finished 3 days ago, I am still shaking my head, thinking, "Wow!  He just pulled that off."  And despite the high-stakes and driving plot, I was grateful Brown created a sense of resolution amidst incredible suspense at the end of his first novel. 

As the novel progressed, I was grateful that it moved from a straightforward cry of freedom to a realization that, sometimes, there is not such a clear difference between the oppressor and the oppressed.  Darrow learns that a depraved person with power will exploit and manipulate no matter if they were born rich or poor, commentating, "The measure of a man is what he does when he has power." Brown explores not only this complex French-revolution-like lesson, but also a much more current issue of "us vs. them."  Darrow is in the process of learning who the real enemy is.  In one of my favorite lines of the novel, he encounters a Gold and thinks "he doesn't seem a monster.  He should be a monster."  But he discovers things are rarely so simple.  We are a generation that refuses to be defined by the "us vs. them" labels of the 20th century (and continued to cling on to the start of the 21st).  So, telling this story that seems so black and white, but using it to demonstrate social complexity is brilliant.

Now, addressing a concern I've heard a few times... The observant eye will note that The Hunger Games is mentioned no less than 4 times on the cover of Red Rising.  This, combined with certain other parallels in the story, have caused concern Brown's novel was a "ripoff" of Suzanne Collin's brilliant work, but I would argue this isn't the case at all.  Just about any story about oppressed groups in a sci-fi, fantasy, or dystopian-future landscape is going to overlap.  I believe that creativity does not derive simply from originality of plot and characters, but of how a story is told.  The former is something of a myth, but the latter is what made Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, and Tolkien the greats they are.  One of the main issues, specifically, is that a good portion of the "Institute" is set up as a brutal "game" where the competitors are divided into 12 houses where the goal is not killing but conquering the rest of the houses... which includes quite a lot of killing.  This may sound like THG, but if the Institute was in Panem, it would mean the "Games" were for Capitol youths only and that Katniss had to successfully masquerade as a Capitol citizen to even get into the games.  The point is, Red Rising may have moments reminiscent of The Hunger Games, but is far too innovative and engaging enough on its own merit to be accused of "ripping off" or "copy-catting."  The repeated mention in summaries and reviews of THG is little more than an (understandable) marketing ploy.  I'd also mention a few other stories Red Rising reminded me of, including: Braveheart, Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, Ender's Game, Lord of the Rings, Greek Mythology, The Iliad, Gladitorial games, Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Circle Trilogy, Doctor Who, A Few Good Men and many more.

As incredible and moving as Red Rising was, I have to include some potential detractors.  This was an incredibly brutal, gruesome book.  I would hope that for the film to do it justice, it would be rated R.  On nearly all fronts, this book is dealing with mature topics - murder, rape, a "bloodydamn"* lot profanity, mutilation, overall gore, and, what the movies call, "frightening and intense scenes."  While these are heavy and difficult I would add they are rarely if ever gratuitous.  Brown is painting a very particular picture of this violent culture.  Even the profanity has specific meaning with *certain words becoming a sort of passcode.  To be clear, there is enough brutal detail to turn the stomach, but it is all purposeful, not something reveled in.  This necessarily bleak tone is captured well by the tragic and harrowing opening paragraph:
[Warning: Graphic Content] The first thing you should know about me is I am my father's son.  And when they came for him, I did as he asked.  I did not cry.  Not when the Society televised the arrest.  Not when the Golds tried him.  Not when the Grays hanged him.  Mother hit me for that.  My brother Kieran was supposed to be the stoic one.  He was the elder, I the younger.  I was supposed to cry.  Instead, Kieran bawled like a girl when Little Eo tucked a haemanthus into Father's left work-boot and ran back to her own father's side.  My sister Leanna murmured a lament beside me.  I just watched and thought it a shame that he died dancing but without his dancing shoes.
On Mars there is not much gravity.  So you have to pull the feet to break the neck.  They let the loved ones do it.
As difficult as the crude, cruel tone and topic of this book are, my main concern with the book was something else entirely.  There is an ever-growing trend in fiction I can only describe as a morality that purports to be selfless but is at the same time radically ends-justifies-the-means in it's approach.  I have encountered this in books like The Road, Mockingjay, among others. The idea is that any action is excusable because you're doing it for someone else.  This is an extremely complex issue to address, especially in the context of a fight for freedom, and one that has me often re-visiting Jack Nicholson's infamous "you can't handle the truth" speech.  But the multiple disturbing situations and moral quandaries Darrow face cause the reader to pause and reconsider these issues.

Like Katniss (in at least books 1 & 2 of THG), Darrow demonstrates the power of living for something beyond this life, but he has yet to truly learn the lesson of Ender's empathy.  This was a shockingly good debut novel for 26 year old brown and I am eagerly looking forward to see what surprises are ahead for Darrow and where the sequel takes him.  4.5 / 5 Stars.

Favorite Quotes:

“I live for the dream that my children will be born free,” she says. “That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them.”
“I live for you,” I say sadly.
Eo kisses my cheek. “Then you must live for more.”

“Why is it so horrible?" I ask him. "Life. All this. Why do they need to make us do this? Why do they treat us like we're their slaves?"
"Power isn't real. It's just a word” 

"Funny how a single word can change everything in your life."
"It is not funny at all. Steel is power. Money is power. But of all the things in all the worlds, words are power.”