-spoilers beyond this point-
Series: Red Rising (#1)
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: Grimdark SF
Publication Date: 2014
Darrow toils under the surface of Mars to make a better world, beaten down and oppressed by the rulers of his world. But a person can only take so much, and soon Darrow joins the resistance, and discovers just how deep the lies of his masters go . . .
Red Rising is one of those series I’ve heard about for ages but not read until now. There are a few reasons for that (not least the sheer number of books I have on my TBR) but one of the main reasons is that I always associated it with the Young Adult market. I’ve got nothing against YA, but I don’t read much of it. With its young characters and battle royale plot, Red Rising just didn’t sound like my sort of story. But having heard from numerous sources that it’s actually a very adult book, my attention was finally drawn and I picked it up.
As it turns out, Red Rising sits awkwardly on the fence between YA and grimdark. Structurally, this book couldn’t be more YA if it tried. You’ve got the teenage protagonist, the evil authoritarian regime, the plucky rebellion, the school for gifted individuals, the love interest with a secret. Every box on that list is ticked. But in terms of content, this is full-blown grimdark. I mean, the opening paragraph has Darrow helping hang his own father. The book gets even more brutal from there. I’m honestly not sure what the target audience for Red Rising is, because the tropes and the actual writing seem very much at odds.
The most frustrating part of this book is those tropes, and in particular I want to single out the school element. Now, I’m not a fan of school settings at the best of times, and this one is among the worst offenders. You see, the premise is that this school is where the best of the best send their children (under duress) and the students will go on to rule society. Great, in theory. But on literally day one, half of the students are murdered by the other half. This is planned by the administration as some kind of lesson. From here students, who are aged sixteen, are permitted (and in some cases encouraged) to murder, enslave, rape, and otherwise mutilate one another. This makes for great conflict, but I can’t get past how terrible an educational system this is. I can see no way this leads to a leadership consisting of anything other than sociopaths. Maybe that’s the idea, but this is a society that has endured for centuries, and quite frankly I don’t buy it. At all.
This major obstacle annoyed me throughout, but it does’t make Red Rising any less compelling. It’s a real page-turner of a book, even if I was pulled out every time the ludicrousness of the situation got to me. Brown’s prose is incredibly moreish, and I’m glad I’ve invested in the whole series. From what I hear, the YA trappings get stripped off from here on out, and the full-blown grimdark space opera awaits.
Even pulled between the extremes of YA and grimdark, Red Rising is a strong debut, and I can’t wait to get into the rest of Brown’s novels.