Red Rising is set in a future where humanity has spread throughout the solar system, and many of the planets and larger moons have been or are in the process of being terraformed. Society is structured ethnically and economically by Color: Obsidians are brute soldiers, Greens are technically inclined, Pinks are lovely and give pleasure, and so on. Golds are the highest, the ruling class, privileged, beautiful. Reds are the lowest of the low, the rustics, the factory workers, the underground miners, whose lives are full of deprivation and hardship.
Sixteen-year-old Darrow is a Red, living and toiling in the mines far below the surface of Mars. But he’s not just any miner – he’s a Helldiver of Lykos, one of the few who pilots the massive clawDrills that burrow deep in the earth, seeking out veins of precious helium-3 that is key to the terraforming process. Darrow is the youngest Helldiver in memory – and he’s also the best.
Life is harsh in the Lykos colony below the surface of Mars. As a people, the Reds’ lives are sacrificed for others, to “pave the way for the future.” Yoked by the Golds and ground under the boot of the Grays, any kind of rebellion is quickly squashed and any hope of effecting even the smallest change is brutally exposed as folly, even as they are touted as “brave pioneers” and “strongest of the human breed” by politico newspins. But when Darrow’s wife Eo finds a ventilation shaft that runs to the surface of the planet, they discover that everything they had been told is a lie – knowledge from which not even being a Helldiver of Lykos can protect them.
Now Darrow finds himself recruited by a shadowy militant group for an elaborate masquerade meant to strike at the very core of the Gold’s power by infiltrating the Institute, where the next generation of Gold leadership wages a proctored war on each other in a bid to garner prestige and power. In order to keep Eo’s dream of a better life alive, Darrow must excel against Society’s elite without being exposed for who he truly is: one of the Red Rising.
Red Rising is a very powerfully written story. At the onset we are taken directly into the heart of the Reds of Mars, down into the heat and the stink and the closeness of the mines, immediately letting us witness the danger and the drudgery and darkness that permeates the lives of the miners – as well as their pride and indomitable spirit. Everything that comes after is played against that backdrop. We don’t envy the miners, we don’t even particularly admire them, but we also recognize that they don’t deserve their bottom-dweller place in Society. An accident of birth should not define a person’s future. Yet would Darrow be the person he is without having grown up in the mines?
Much of the book involves this mock war between those selected to attend the Institute, who are divided into Houses that then defend their keeps while attempting to capture rival Houses’ banners. They are the best of the best, the cream of the crop – all Golds, and almost all from exalted families and powerful dynasties. Those who are part of the triumphant House will receive their pick of assignments and be recruited by the most powerful sponsors, and none will be recruited harder or honored higher than the person who leads his or her house to victory: the Primus.
Competition, both between Houses and within them, is fierce as skills, cunning and unbridled ambition are plied with a ruthless viciousness that is technically frowned upon by the Proctors but tacitly encouraged. While Darrow is disgusted by the unmitigated entitlement of the participants even as they revert to primal impulses, he discovers that his life of hardship and deprivation, his superior dexterity developed from hours at the clawDrill, and his sense of rage against Society makes him more than a match for most of the others. But as his superior abilities assert themselves, he becomes a target from foe and “friend” alike – and the question becomes, not only will he survive, but if he does, will he still be Darrow of Lykos, or will he have become the ruthless “Reaper” of House Mars?
Red Rising is utterly riveting. The action is sharp, the characters focused, the twists and turns of the plot often surprising but rarely contrived. While some of the fundamentals of this future Society may be difficult to swallow when scrutinized, there is little reason to do so. Just sit back, squirm, then cheer, then wince – and keep reading.
(Red Rising is the first of a series of books by Pierce Brown, with the fourth book – and the beginning of the second arc of the story – Iron Gold, being released earlier this year.)