RogerBW's Blog

Red Rising, Pierce Brown 18 October 2021

2018 young adult SF, first of its series. Darrow is a Red, lowest of the colour-coded castes, mining helium-3 on Mars to power the terraforming project. One day the work will end and everyone will live on the surface… but it's all a lie.

There's a lot going on here. Darrow will get widowed, then hooked up with the Resistance and discover the truth (the terraforming is long since done, but a mining labour force brought up with the ethos of selfless sacrifice is dead handy so nobody told them); he'll get remade into the likeness of a Gold (hmm, Five Fates anyone?), and be inserted into their society to be a fifth-columnist when the revolution comes. Then he goes to Gold Leadership School, and discovers that rather than actually, you know, teach anything they divide the kids into arbitrary teams (based on personality traits) and dump them into a wargame arena.

So far, so Hunger Games meets Ender's Game and Lord of the Flies, with some faction struggles among the rulers. But one can see how this could be a really powerful story. If if weren't for two things.

The writing is plodding and pedestrian. I "read" this as an audio book, which I find usually leaves me more in favour with slack pacing, but every bit of it dragged. Are we supposed to feel tension? Because we can generally work out what's going to happen next, and then it's just a matter of waiting to get there. The actual prose is endlessly dreary. With lots of short choppy sentences.

I would never sing the forbidden song. I would work. I would bow. Let me wash dirt from my hands instead of blood. I want only to live with my family. We were happy enough.

The other problem is Darrow himself, who is a thoroughgoing Mary Sue, perfect at anything he turns his hand to. He's the best drill operator ever. He needs to be fast with his fingers; he's not just fast enough to pass for a Gold, he's the fastest Gold ever. He's completely uneducated, but one night (well, maybe more than one, it's not stated) with some drug therapy and accelerated audio of Great Literature while he sleeps and he can pass perfectly for someone who's been brought up in Gold society. Misses one question on his multi-hundred-question entrance exam. Has a wife who causes her own death explicitly to motivate him to rebellion. Unlike anyone else, actually tries to stop his soldiers raping the women on the other wargame teams. (Presumably homosexuality exists, since it's still a suitable subject for casual insults, but nobody seems to do it even for power games.) He's supposed to be an everyman hero, but he's simply and effortlessly better than everyone he meets at everything, and in any moment has the personality he needs to make this work.

And when we get into the wargame section that's the majority of the book, Brown throws in so many cool things that the actual plot gets lost. Darrow's a great leader who can unite people behind him! Oh but wait his best friend betrays him. Oh but wait he builds up a new faction. Oh but wait the referees cheat to ruin his supplies and mobility. Oh but wait when he captures more they don't ruin those.

Acknowledgments include: "And to the reader, thank you. You're going to bloodydamn love the next two books." No, I'm not.

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  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 02:57pm on 18 October 2021

    The teams based on personality traits sounds like it is ripped off from Divergent. Which I gave up reading because it was pedestrian and dragged. And was full of mad bollocks which could not produce a functioning society. (The Divergent movie is better but still meh and full of mad bollocks).

    YA dystopias appear to be the new incarnation of Lost Heir to the Kingdom, where the Chosen One is chosen because they are, like chosen & destined, innit? Not because they have to work at it.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 03:05pm on 18 October 2021

    Yeah, Hunger Games made it about cultural background, but Divergent was explicitly personalities. (I didn't carry on with that after the first book.)

    I don't mind someone discovering a talent because they haven't had a chance to try the thing they're talented at before, but when Our Hero turns out to have all the talents, particularly when he's presented as a hero from the common people, it just doesn't hold together. The Darrow shown here would end up as a dictator who thought he was benevolent, and nobody would dare tell him otherwise.

  3. Posted by John P at 11:39pm on 18 October 2021

    You missed "The Amtrak Wars" and Paranoia RPG from your list.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 11:48pm on 18 October 2021

    I've never read The Amtrak Wars; I'd say there isn't really much of the Paranoia feel here, because the class you're born/engineered into is yours for life, and there isn't really an authority you can betray people to separate from the dictatorial power-struggling class. (Also because it's a very humourless book in general.)

  5. Posted by John Gordon Dallman at 08:00pm on 19 October 2021

    And I went "wot?" at the first paragraph of this review, because where the hell is He3 on Mars supposed to have come from? There's too much atmosphere for it to be collected on the surface from the solar wind, even if that was a real thing on the Moon. Mars' gravity is too weak for it to retain helium. That premise doesn't /have/ to make sense, given the story structure, but it still looks careless.

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 08:10pm on 19 October 2021

    Also it seems to be a sort of solid mineral thing that you pull out of the ground, rather than say a gas found in rocks or other gases.

  7. Posted by John P at 10:14pm on 19 October 2021

    Paranoia was the first thing that flashed into my head when you said he was a Red, the lowest of the colour coded castes.

    You've not missed much in the Amtrak Wars. It's a six volume series that has some nice ideas & setting but a story arc that is four volumes too long (I felt).

  8. Posted by RogerBW at 10:43pm on 19 October 2021

    Yeah, I thought it might work like that at first, but it rapidly turns out that there are a bunch more castes and they don't really happen in any particular colour-related order.

    (Stolen from the Red Rising wiki, of course there is one…)

    • Golds: Rulers of the society
    • Silvers: Financiers and businessmen
    • Whites: Clergy and judges
    • Coppers: Administrators, lawyers and bureaucrats
    • Blues: Bridge crew of starships and pilots
    • Yellows: Doctors and researchers
    • Greens: Programmers and technicians
    • Violets: Artisans and other creatives
    • Oranges: Mechanics and engineers
    • Grays: Regular soldiers and police
    • Browns: Servants, cooks, janitors
    • Obsidians: Elite soldiers and bodyguards
    • Pinks: Pleasure slaves and social functionaries
    • Reds: Manual laborers and miners

    They all have hair and eyes to match their assigned colour, but apparently not skin.

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