Red Rising (Red Rising Trilogy #1)
Told in first-person present-tense from the perspective of young Darrow, a subterranean-dwelling slave who thinks he’s toiling away to make the surface of Mars livable for future generations of his people. Darrow might very well have settled for his lot in life, had terrible injustice not taken everything from him. And had he not discovered how thoroughly his people have been lied to.
What he becomes is an infiltrator. A subversive revolutionary, intent on joining the governmental system that’s so wronged him and his people so that he can utterly destroy it. But in order to gain the power he’ll need to sow said destruction, he first needs to survive the selection process…
“The measure of a man is what he does when he has power.”
While this was marketed as YA, I would stress the disclaimer of it being VERY mature YA. The violence is abundant—borderline gratuitous at times. And the raw depictions of war include rape (albeit NOT graphically depicted, only mentioned several times within believable context.) Our main character may start out as a 16-year old, but his environment and situation have shaped him into something more mature than the vast majority of 30-year-olds I know. From the very start, Darrow works an almost impossibly demanding and perilous job, exists within a severely repressed and downtrodden sub-society of slaves, and is quite committedly and convincingly married.
Readers need to be fairly patient with the setup. There’s a lot of worldbuilding to be had when you’re looking at something set roughly 1k years in the future, which still attempts to invoke some passable science rather than leaning purely on sci-fantasy techno-jargon. You’ll endure the gut-wrench of the inciting incident, and a long string of grueling hero prep as Darrow is readied for wreaking vengeance upon his enemies. But after that first 100 pages or so, the story picks up a lot of momentum.
It also basically turns into a giant, live action game of Risk: Eugenics edition.
Whoever compared this to The Hunger Games was way off the mark. This book takes the horror of Hunger Games and eviscerates it. Then snaps its neck, sets it on fire, and does an Irish jig on the corpse.
This isn’t merely a kids-killing-kids survival premise. Here we have the “privileged” children of a ruling class who’ve been groomed for leadership since birth, pitted against one another as a means of producing ruthless warlords. This story is a commentary on slavery, cast systems, genetic supremacy, scientific exploitation, hedonic adaptation, cyclical decadence… and ultimately, the frail resilience of the human soul.
“I would have lived in peace. But my enemies brought me war.”
The prose is lilting, almost lyrical at times. Darrow’s voice is pleasantly straightforward while still being pointedly intelligent. He doesn’t truly understand the depth of his potential, though he gradually grows into it via necessity. The character growth in him is excruciating, gradual, and completely believable. Darrow is flawed but empathetic throughout—though his flaws and empathy-inducing traits transition repeatedly over time. (There are few characters I have ever encountered that so made me wish I could hug and tell them I’m sorry.)
My main qualm?
I have to say, I'm a bit perplexed by the range and limitations of the technology we’re presented with. i.e. They apparently have good enough med-tech to replace the entire epidermis and reconnect the optic nerve… and yet, Dancer still has a paralyzed arm and leg?
Red Rising didn’t just elicit a striking range of emotions from this reader, it even made me laugh out loud a time or two. So, while I may have a few issues with the pacing and inconsistencies in med-tech advancement, I can’t help but round up to a 5-star rating. It simply, profoundly, deserves it.
The only reason I haven’t yet read further in the series is because I need to be mentally ready to be fully immersed in such a strenuous world.