Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs enthralled me with their stories about Mars. When I read about the Red Rising series it had Alison written all over it: set on Mars in the future, check. Starts in a mining society, check. Infiltrating nobility modeled on Roman mythology, check. I was all over it.
However, I found Red Rising fell flat for me, at least for most of the novel. I liked Darrow and his mining community, as well as his wife, Eo, and the permanent contest for the Laurel to win more food for the families in his division.
WAIT A MINUTE. This sounds familiar, right? If you’re thinking Hunger Games, it’s kind of impossible not to. Granted, any dystopian novel now is automatically held up to Katniss Level, but I was determined to give Red Rising a chance as a separate novel.
I ended up liking, not loving, the book. I didn’t get enthralled as I was with Wool, when I simply couldn’t stop turning the pages and found it was 2 am and ‘time for just one more chapter.’
The reason for my disconnect, I think, was the unwieldy nature of the plot. Pierce Brown starts the action in the mining society, but a quarter of the way through it switches to the elite society of the Golds complete with ANOTHER contest in an academy between twelve houses of students.
This means I had to forget the first world as well as its complex structure of characters and start over with a completely new (and extremely large) group of new characters. Hang on – make that twelve groups of characters, since there are a dozen Houses completing for the top spot.
Brown succeeds somewhat, although having such a huge task bogs down the book. As a result, the final part suffers from White Room syndrome. We move from the mines, to a rebel outpost, to a training facility, to another facility, to a castle, a cave, another castle, a field, a forest… I felt like Johnny McCartney, Paul’s grandfather, from the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night - “I thought I was supposed to be getting a change of scenery. But so far, I’ve been in a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room.”
All this meant I couldn’t really picture where Darrow and Cassius / Mustang / Roque / whoever were at the moment. If Brown had spent a bit more on world-building I think he would have seen his setting was too huge, too overbearing. It’s easy to slap on another castle or facility for your plot – much harder to keep things simple and really explore the microverse you’ve created for your readers.
Even the characters were White Roomed. Darrow completely changes his appearance when he infiltrates the upper echelon of the Golds, so I had no idea what he looked like (except he’s supposed to be gorgeous, of course.) Ditto Eo, his wife, (but of course she was gorgeous as well.) Then there’s Cassius, who is athletic and gorgeous, and Mustang, also athletic and gorgeous…. At this point I glazed over. WHERE ARE THE CHARACTER FLAWS?
Much has been written on the subject of Brown’s language. It’s supposed to be archaic, with a hint of epic fantasy and an original construct. As a result we have words like ‘gorydamn, gravboots, HighLingo, gorywell, drillBoy, goryballs…’ Yeah. There’s a lot of gory going on. However, I can deal with made up words. What I couldn’t get past was the idea that miners would sing songs with lines like these: ‘We fell and fell and danced along to croon a knell of rights and wrongs…’
TO CROON A KNELL? REALLY? I found myself longing for good, old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon curses at that point.
However, what kept me going was the repeated plotpoint that all contests were pre-decided. No matter what one does, Darrow discovers, the outcome is already written. And so, of course, he decides to change it.
That decisiveness in the face of injustice kept me reading to the end, hoping for justice. And along the way, the book gelled and became interesting just in time for the next installment in the series, of course.
I understand Red Rising is already optioned for a movie. Probably it will do well, since the actors will give actual faces to the vague characters, and staging will create real settings. If you enjoyed Jupiter Ascending and don’t mind slogging through an overblown beginning to reach a better finale, you might give Red Rising a try.
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