Okay, let’s get this out of the way right at the start: yes, a major component of the action in Red Rising involves teenagers fighting each other until there is one winner (in this case, one winning team) in an artificially constructed and manipulated conflict designed and administered by the ruling elite. And no, it has almost nothing in common with The Hunger Games.
Let me also say that this review contains a certain number of rather benign spoilers – but spoilers nonetheless.
Red Rising is set in our future when 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 (and Earth has been overthrown). Society is structured ethnically and economically by Color: Obsidian are brute soldiers, Greens are technically inclined, Pinks are beautiful and give pleasure, Grays are military, Violets are the artists, rare Whites preside over the law, and so on. Reds are the lowest of the low, the rustics, the factory workers, the underground miners; they are no better than slaves whose lives are full of deprivation and hardship. Golds are the highest, the ruling class, privileged; they are “the pinnacle of society”.
Sixteen year old Darrow is a Red, living and toiling in the mines far below the surface of Mars. But Darrow is not just any miner – he is a Helldiver of Lykos, one of the few who pilot the massive, many tentacled 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”. They are yoked by the Golds and ground under the boot of the Grays; any kind of rebellion is quickly squashed, any hope effecting even the smallest of change in their existence is brutally exposed as folly, even as they are touted as “brave pioneers” and “strongest of the human breed” by politico newspins. But then by chance Darrow’s elfin wife Eo finds a forgotten ventilation shaft that runs to the surface of the planet, and there they discover that everything they had been led to believe had been 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, the establishment where the next generation of Gold leadership wages 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 now 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. Part 1, “Slave”, is only a small fraction of the entire book, but it sets an indelible stage for what comes after, taking us directly into the heart of the Reds of Mars, immediately putting us down in 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. Yet even then, there is pride.
The legends say that the god Mars was the parent of tears, foe to dance and lute. As to the former, I agree. But we of the colony of Lykos, one of the first colonies under the Mars surface, are a people of dance and song and family. We spit on that legend and make our own birthright. It is the one resistance we can manage against the Society that rules us. Gives us a bit of spine. They don’t care that we dance or that we sing, so long as we obediently dig.
Everything that comes after is played on the backdrop of the impoverished and beaten down yet close knit colony of Lykos; it is the touchstone that makes the glitter and shine that comes after appear with a brittle and soulless glint. 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, but in this world, it does. Yet would Darrow be the person he is without having grown up in the mines? Some of the greatest internal conflict in the book involves fear that the changes made to Darrow and the subterfuge he must go through will slowly erode away who he is, or allow him to forget where it is he came from. Because the mining colony is so dynamic at the start of the book, the rest of what happens comes into sharp clarity when held up against it.
Much of the book involves a “mock” war between the teenagers selected to attend the Institute, who are divided into Houses that then defend their keeps while attempting to capture rival Houses’ banners. These teens are the best of the best, the cream of the crop – all Golds, and almost all from exalted families and powerful dynasties (even within the ranks of the Golds themselves there are schisms and zealously guarded hierarchies handed down – and paraded – from generation to generation). Those who are part of the triumphant House – that one that wins this contrived and “proctored” war – will receive their pick of assignments, will be recruited by the most powerful sponsors, and none will be recruited harder or honored higher than the person who lead his or her house to victory: the Primus.
The competition – both between Houses and within them – is fierce as skills, cunning and unbridled ambition are plied with a ruthlessness and viciousness that is technically frowned upon by the Proctors but continues unpunished, and even is tacitly encouraged. While Darrow is disgusted by the entire premise of the conflict and the unmitigated entitlement of the participants even as they revert to primal impulses, he must nevertheless work on not only surviving, but excelling in this foreign environment in order to infiltrate the Golds as deeply as he can once the “war” is over. And frankly, his life of hardship and deprivation underground, 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 other kids. 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 and intuitive, the characters focused and varied, the twists and turns of the plot are surprising at times but rarely contrived. While some of the fundamentals of this future Society may be difficult to swallow when put under scrutiny, there really is little reason to do so. Just sit back, then squirm, then cheer, then wince – and keep reading. It’s a heckuva ride, and we’re just around the first bend: lucky for us, there are two more books to come.