Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton.
Paperback, 382 pages.
Release date: January 28th 2014.
Rating: 2½ out of 5.
Source: Received from publisher for review.
Reviewed by: Arianne.
Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations. Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children. But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow-- and Reds like him-- are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class. Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity' s overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society' s ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies . . . even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.
As a reader of YA, hype is an obstacle we both help to create and must circumnavigate when we’re deciding what to read next. I fell victim to the hype for Red Rising, and I paid the price.
All year, Red Rising has been described as ‘the next big thing’. And I’m not just talking ‘the next Divergent, the next Hunger Games’. I’m talking movie deals, press articles and even non-readers of YA describing the book – and its author – as their ‘way in’ to YA. I’m all for books that convert people to YA, but the problem with Red Rising is that it’s such a predictable target for all this attention. It’s brutal, it’s bloody, it’s sci-fi-dystopian with a neat revolutionary twist. It’s a US-published book, it’s written by a guy, it has a cool cover, it’s got series potential. In an already oversaturated market, Red Rising’s marketing team worked double time to ensure these assets would elevate it above other 2014 new releases, casting a handy fog over what really matters: the story.
In an apocalyptic world where our home planet is dying and a class system prevails, one boy will change everything. Darrow is a Red, destined for life as a miner deep in the core of Mars, fishing out precious elements in the hope that one day, the surface of the planet will be habitable. Unfortunately for Darrow, it turns out the surface of the planet has already been habitable for decades. To the Mars-bound Golds, the Reds are merely slaves, locked away beneath the crust in dust, filth and ignorance. Then Darrow makes a choice: to join a mysterious rebellion, disguise himself as a Gold, infiltrate their society and take them down from the inside.
In YA – and in any book, for that matter – it’s essential that the reader connects with the main character. They can be unreliable, they can be downright liars, but there needs to be a part of them that the reader can reach and hold onto if we’re going to tag along for the ride. I didn’t get that with Darrow. This book is about creating a better world for humanity, but Darrow has no humanity. Not because he has malevolent intentions, but because all of his faults are simply erased over the course of the plot. He is presented as perfect, the ideal hero, The Chosen One. He’s strong and battle-ready and courageous and boring. He’s not funny or flawed, or even capable of making mistakes. He’s actually kind of needlessly mean, if I’m honest. There’s nothing to make him real.
I admit I use the word ‘real’ loosely here as this is a novel set on Mars, but that shouldn’t have been a problem. World-building in the crux of dystopia, yet I couldn’t picture the world of Red Rising at all. It wasn’t for lack of good writing – because while this book is laden with other burdens, bad writing isn’t one of them – it was simply for lack of key descriptions and visuals we should have been given immediately. There’s plenty of action and fight sequences (the school Darrow joins is more of a battlefield than anything else really) yet the pacing still seems somehow stilted and murky.
But you know what I did love about this book? The occasional, flickering, spell-binding moments of true character, where a personal touch shone through the political message and other drama. The relationship between Darrow and Eo saved the book for me. Argumentative, sweet and tender, it shows a side to Darrow we would never have seen otherwise. I wanted Darrow to move away from the ‘tough guy who never admits his feelings’ stereotype, because when he was with Eo, he was a genuinely good guy. With her, he has dreams and hopes and fears; he is the kind of guy who could really lead a book like this. I just wanted him to notice it.
And Eo is pretty kick-ass by herself too – Pierce Brown just doesn’t acknowledge it as often as he should. Because, unfortunately, at heart, this is a book written for boys. I thought we were getting over the gender divide in YA – look at The Hunger Games, the trilogy that this book aspires to be; written by Suzanne Collins, led by Katniss Everdeen as well as Peeta and Gale, showing diversity of personality, race and gender within its pages. That’s what Red Rising lacks. Even including a few feeble attempts to prove otherwise, Red Rising basically aims to reverse years of campaigning towards a YA shelf where books are directed at both boys and girls, leaving it up to them to decide what they do or do not like.
That is not to say that Red Rising – or any book archaically directed at boys - cannot be enjoyed by girls. My good friend Fionnuala, who has impeccable taste and read this book over the same readalong weekend as I did, absolutely loved it, and I know that, like every other reader out there, she may have found reasons to love this book that I simply could not see. Books by Charlie Higson, Eoin Colfer, Rick Riordan and Anthony Horowitz rank pretty highly on my list of all-time favourites - right alongside books by Stephanie Perkins, Ally Carter, Sarah J. Maas and Marie Lu. But where these writers give equal representation, important roles and unique personalities to both male and female characters, Red Rising just ignores the issue and ploughs on with what is an undoubtedly engaging plot – it just wasn’t for me.
In short: I really did not enjoy this book. I recommend it solely because I want to see what others think and compare opinions, but I felt let down by the excessive hype and the stereotypes which prevail within what could otherwise have been a brilliant book.