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This review will not contain any major spoilers for the series, but will include discussion of characterization and overarching themes.
Reading the Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown was the first time I got what a space opera was supposed to feel like.
I’ve read my share of fantasy, but science fiction has always struck me as a little sterile. However, my New Year’s resolution was to read more of it, so this New York times bestseller and Campbell award nominated author seemed like a good pick. I was promised breathtaking adventure and this did not disappoint.
Thousands of years in the future, human society has spread across the solar system, with each planet ruled by its own governor, reporting to the Sovereign who rules from Luna, Earth’s moon. Thanks to genetic and surgical manipulation, society is segregated by color, a designation that is also represented by peoples’ hair, eyes, and metal “sigils,” which are embedded in their flesh. Each color has a singular purpose. Our story follows Darrow, a 16 year old Red ‘helldiver’ miner who goes undercover to train as one of the ruling Gold class to lead his people in a revolt — the titular Red Rising.
The world building throughout the trilogy is immense, and the unique vocabulary does a lot of that early work, immediately immersing us in Darrow’s dangerous, sweaty life as a Red slave. Words like “bloodydamn,” “helldiver,” and “prime” help to establish that this society has its own slang, and it’s easy to imagine how these phrases evolved from the English we speak today. Once Darrow is among the Golds, there is a distinct linguistic shift, and certain words and phrases are replaced by a veneer of class. “Bloodydamn” becomes “gorydamn” and Golds pompously refer to each other as “my goodman.”
However, one of the major flaws in the world building is the complete failure of the narrative to acknowledge the irony of overthrowing a color-based system of slavery — in a galaxy where everyone is white. With the exception of the war-like Obsidians, every other mention of skin color in the book refers to characters pale skin, particularly in contrast to their color. This galactic white-washing is seemingly confirmed by the way the author describes his influences for the colors’ distinct accents: “Darrow has an Irish accent in my head. Golds speak with a very Scandinavian accent. The Obsidians have a hybrid Maori sound.” I refuse to write this off as a failure of imagination: any vision of humanity’s future that does not include actual people of color is inherently racist.
The racial discomfort is further compounded by the fact that even within this narrative ostensibly about the uprising of an entire caste of people, startlingly few of the characters in the novel are actually from that caste. The ensemble of major characters are almost exclusively Gold, as are the leaders of the revolution. Instead of a story about the proletariat overthrowing the ruling class, this story is ultimately about the clash between rival factions who already have power.
The series does only marginally better when it comes to its female characters, who are trained as warriors right alongside the boys, and indeed, ruled by a female Sovereign. But of the three major female characters, none of them manage to transcend their tropes. The first, Darrow’s wife Eo, is killed in the first chapter, only to be tearfully idolized thus inspiring Darrow to embark on his rebellious mission. The second major female character, Victra, is a fierce and ruthless warrior who first falls in love with Darrow before eventually (off screen) getting together with his best friend instead.
Finally, there’s Virginia, the third major female character and ultimate love interest who throughout the entire trilogy is referred to by the nickname Mustang. While other characters are also given nicknames during the Hunger Games-esque trials of the first novel, they go on to be known by their true names, while a quick text search of the e-book shows a mere 68 instances of “Virginia” throughout the entire trilogy, while “Mustang” is referred to 1,135 times, called that not only by Darrow, but her family and the Sovereign herself. Though Virginia is a proven fighter, her true strength is her mind, and she is one of the key diplomats and strategists of the series.
It’s tempting to write Virginia off as a Mary Sue, but her deft competency is overshadowed by Darrow’s blinding perfection. Despite his origins, Darrow quickly masters the physical and mental skills needed to pass as a Gold, and goes on to become a leader, general, and hero. His only flaw is his literally unbelievable arrogance.
“These legions are mine. I feel something buzzing in those around me. A sort of physical fanaticism. It did not buzz in the Golds quite like this. The Golds love me because of the victory and glory I bring. These other Colors love me for something far different, something far more potent. Any other conquering Gold would have vented the ship, but I did not, because they chose me instead of the Golds who were once their masters. I gave them that choice.” Golden Son
Over the course of the series, Darrow becomes something of a legend, an image he is very conscious of maintaining. At times, his obsession with his own image begins to feel bloated and self-congratulatory. While no doubt unintentional, altogether these flaws add to a narrative that is profoundly lacking in self-awareness.
“Most call me sir or Reaper. And I want to correct them and tell them to call me Darrow, but I know the value of respect, of distance between men and leader. Because even though I’m laughing with them, even though they’re helping heal what’s been twisted inside me, they are not my friends. They are not my family. Not yet. Not until we have that luxury. For now, they are my soldiers. And they need me as much as I need them. I’m their Reaper. … I’ve never been a man of joy or a man of war, or an island in a storm. … That was what I pretended to be. I am and always have been a man who is made complete by those around him. I feel a strength growing in myself. A strength I haven’t felt in so long. It’s not only that I’m loved. It’s that they believe in me.” Morning Star
While Darrow’s accomplishments are genuinely impressive, in order to pull off these flashy exploits Brown purposefully withholds Darrow’s plans from the reader. What plays out as a clever scheme the first time quickly becomes rote as the reader is left in the dark only to be surprised by a twist that comes out of nowhere.
If you are wondering how the series got the author nominated for a Campbell award, we’ll return to: space opera. The major story of the series, a struggle for justice against an oppressive regime, is compelling and well-constructed. However unlikely its origins, this intergalactic oligarchy is is expansive and intricate, and Darrow introduces us to multiple minor characters and side-plots who add color (see what I did there!) and depth to this world. To this massive infrastructure, Brown layers in competing political interests, corruption, family drama, and betrayal. In this galaxy, alliances change seemingly at the drop of a ring, and government is a blood sport.
The writing is rich and evocative, oftentimes taking on a cinematic quality when describing the glory and rush of a fight. I imagine those with a taste for battle tactics will enjoy the many clashes of the massive space armadas much more than I did, though even I can admit that they were epic and engaging. Life is cheap in this universe, and Brown doesn’t shy away from visceral descriptions of violence and emotional hardship.
It’s in the friendships between Darrow and his fellow warriors that the story really shines. As Darrow assimilates into Gold society, he struggles to reconcile the people he has come to care about with the inhumane regime they represent. Throughout the course of the trilogy Darrow’s relationships with the Golds he trained with shift, and shift again, exploring many different aspects of friendship and loyalty. These relationships and characters ground the adventure in very human emotion, and the story dwells on the tragedy of circumstances that pits love and honor against each other.
Ultimately, Red Rising is a fun story whose execution is muddied by un-examined privilege.
Images courtesy of Random House.