Friday, March 13, 2020

"Red Rising," by Pierce Brown--Fiction Review

It is Friday, my dear internet strangers, so, therefore, it’s time for a new review. Today we are talking about “Red Rising” by Pierce Brown.

“Red Rising” is the first book in the “Red Rising” series, and it’s a science fiction dystopian story in the same spirit as “The Hunger Games,” but set on Mars. It becomes clear early on that the premise of the story is we’ve colonized other planets in our solar system and are huge assholes about it. You know, like what would actually happen.

Pierce Brown

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

“Red Rising” is all passion, all heart, love, and rage. From the very first page of the story and onward, it strikes that exact tone, and never lets up. Brown’s style of writing involves short, punchy sentences, to the point of almost terseness, broken up by longer poetic descriptions, dialog, and metaphors. The effect that he creates is a world stark and beautiful—terrible, but also compelling.

Here is a perfect distillation of the tone from the back of the book jacket:

“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.

The second speaker says little, but so much is conveyed in that short sentence. This conversation reveals that these are two people in love who are tragically on different wavelengths.

The protagonist of the story, Darrow, is less a man and more a force of nature waiting to be unleashed, which lends an intensity to his every scene. This is, in fact, every scene, since the novel is written in the first person, from Darrow’s point of view. Darrow is a kindred spirit to Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games.” Both characters are reluctant revolutionaries—both are intensely practical, capable, and motivated by love.

Darrow’s “education,” such as it is, is a school set up in nearly the same style as the hunger games competition. However, instead of twenty-four teenagers in the woods trying to kill each other, the institute in “Red Rising” involves hundreds of teenagers trying to conquer each other. Only a little over half of them are expected to die during it—so progress.

Since I’m a big audiobook fan, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t point out that the narrator, Tim Gerard Reynold’s Irish brogue is perfect for this book—can’t imagine it any other way.   

What I don’t love about this book:

Like “The Hunger Games,” this first book, in a series of books about a revolution, is a story wholly dedicated to prerevolutionary matters, and positioning for the eventual revolution—but it never actually starts up until the next story. The reason for this, as I see it, is that “Red Rising” is an intense character study of the creation of the revolutionary hero—or leader. To me, as much as I love this novel, I find myself a tad impatient for the start of the main event.

Another thing that is a small quibble for me is the author brings this otherwise fast-paced narrative to an absolute standstill to describe how afraid the protagonist is—in exquisite detail—at various points in the narrative. Which, is fair on some level, I couldn’t be Darrow after about one day in his boots. Brown is also good for the gratuitous torture scene, sprinkled liberally throughout the story. I get their function within the plot, but I always find myself a little bored, waiting for those scenes to end so that we can move on to the next thing.

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The novel begins with an ominous monologue from Darrow describing his enemies, and we’re not entirely sure why he hates them at this point, but it’s so intense it’s nearly tangible. The only hint we’re given is they’ve brought him war, and he’s going to kill them all.

Then we jump into the early chapters and find out exactly why he hates them. He and all his family and friends were always told that they were colonists of Mars—the first colonists. As they are the earliest colonists, this is the excuse for their hard lives of toiling under the Martian surface to procure the necessary resources to terraform Mars. Society—or the society—as it’s called in the novel, is broken up into a rigid caste system. Every caste in the society is known for its color. Gold is at the top of the society, and Red is at the bottom.

Laws are strictly draconian, and punishment is swift and nearly always capital—or at least it is for the Reds. The first story Darrow tells us about his life is how his father was hanged as a traitor to the society because he danced a forbidden dance. The mayor of footloose has nothing on these people. Then we get to find out a terrible little detail about hanging on Mars, the gravity isn’t enough to break the neck, and it takes a long time to strangle to death in the reduced gravity. So as a mercy, someone has to pull on the condemned’s feet—in Darrow’s words, “they let the loved ones do it.”

Despite all of this nightmare, Darrow lives a happy life as a helldiver, a future mining profession exactly as dangerous as it sounds. Darrow, who is sixteen, is married, loves his wife Eo, and is excellent at his job.

Eo, however, isn’t content with their lives—or the lives all the other Reds are forced to live. She even reveals to Darrow that the other colors are hiding how much progress has been made on the surface by showing him a secret garden she’s found through a vent to a surface building. There they make love under the stars—the first time either of them has ever seen stars. The society, of course, hangs her for it—well technically they whip her for it and hang her because she sings a song—not a musical bunch these society types. Then they hang Darrow, for having the gall to take down her body to bury her.

Darrow doesn’t die after being hanged. His uncle had drugged him so he would only appear to be dead and then buries him. Then a resistance, known as the Sons of Aries, digs up Darrow and recruits him to their cause. He has ample motivation at this point, but the rebels give Darrow even more fuel for his hatred of the society. They reveal to him that Eo was always right about the society—mars had been successfully terraformed centuries ago. The Reds are just slaves for no better reason then that’s where they are born within the hierarchy of the society.

The Sons of Aries’ brutal plan is to use one of their surgeons—they call them carvers—to “remake” Darrow into a Gold. It’s not a pleasant process. Then after he barely survives that, with some clever hacking, and trickery they get Darrow admitted to the institute—the famous Gold school. From there, Darrow will learn, and infiltrate Gold society. The plan is one day he can destroy them from the inside and lead a revolution. Most of the novel takes place at the school, which is a gigantic hunger games style competition that Darrow is a natural at, and he eventually rises to the top of his class.     


This book, and the series it belongs to, is one of my absolute favorites. However, even I, who has something named after him—known as the Carlson Twist, an inside joke about sad endings—has to admit it’s real dark.

Brown has the enviable ability to take his readers on an emotional journey that can raise you to the highest peaks of vicariously living through love so passionate it hurts, to being emotionally waterboarded—and it’s mostly waterboarding. It isn’t a book that you so much read as it’s a book you feel in your bones. I’ve consistently had the experience of profound dread—like didn’t do my math class homework, while not wearing pants to school, for the second time this week—I don’t know exactly where that came from in my subconscious—of each next chapter. Then immediately read that next chapter anyway because I just have to know. I can’t not know.

And that’s “Red Rising.” There isn’t anything else I feel like I need to analyze here. 

Parting thoughts:

I admire the author, Pierce Brown. He’s a personal hero of mine because I’ve read about his difficulties securing an agent and finally getting this novel published—and the fortitude that took. Regrettably, something similar hasn’t worked out for me since I intend to self publish. However, it’s still nice to hear a story of someone persevering through over a hundred rejection letters and finally getting the work they believed in so much published.

This next bit is for my fellow aspiring writers.

Even though my experience with publishing has so far been very different from my biggest heroes, and I’m going the route of the indie author—I still feel it’s always worth trying to publish traditionally first, before self-publishing your first novel. Yes, it’s easy to get burned out after reading dozens upon dozens of rejection letters from literary agents and publishers, for months on end—if not years. I know. I’ve done it. The exercise is still worth it, and after all of that psychological battering, you will be a better writer for it. Like me, you might find no one at all willing to take your writing on. Fiction writing is immensely competitive, and sadly it’s also an industry where if you’re socially networked well, the wheels get greased even if you're not that good—just like everything. But at the end of everything, you’re still a writer because you believe you are, and if that isn’t enough, your ole’ pal Kevin from Pittsburgh, who writes a blog about writing in obscurity, believes in you. That absolutely requires you to read my blog religiously from this day forward, no take-backsies. 

So why am I telling you, you should still try to publish traditionally even though the barrier to entry is nightmarishly difficult and you’re guaranteed to take one of the most all-time ego bruisings of a lifetime?  I mean, you’re already armed with your self-belief and have the endorsement of Kevin, a random idiot you found on the internet. What more could you need? Why would you go through that torture, and not just skip ahead where you self-publish your stuff?

Because the adversity of it alone will help you grow as a writer, it will teach you discipline, perseverance, the ability not to freak the fuck out when someone tells you or implies heavily that your shit is terrible. Free advice: the response to a no is nothing, and if not that it’s always “thank you for considering my work.” Never—EVER—argue your point further after a rejection or write them an angry note because the stink of unprofessionalism takes a long, long time to wear off, and the publishing community is small. Reputation is everything.

Finally, I assure you, even if you get nothing but rejection—mostly of the form letter variety—there will be a few agents and acquiring editors who will take the time to give you some feedback. Even though it isn’t representation or a book deal, this is gold. It is an oasis in the middle of the literary obscurity desert, where I’ve set up a dome and write this blog. Learn from that feedback even if you don’t agree with it, turn it over in your head, sleep on it, but most of all, and for the second time, learn from it—then you will know how to improve anything you’ve written. Good luck, champ. You’ve always got me, or at least until the obscurity sandworms tear down the dome and eat me alive. 

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