Review by Curtis Cole
Empire: it is a dirty word and for good reason. It stands for violence, oppression, exploitation and, perhaps most of all, lies. This is something the protagonist of Pierce Brown’s science-fiction debut knows all too well. Coming from the subterranean passages of Mars, male lead Darrow and his fellow miners, “Reds”, toil all day long in the dark, expecting their labor to propel humanity forward into the future by enabling the terraforming of Mars thanks to the precious Helium-3 gas they struggle to extract. But, as Darrow discovers, not all is as the ruling class claim: Mars was made habitable hundreds of years ago.
Darrow and all of Red kind are slaves. They are the lowest of cogs in a vast classist regime dedicated to the accumulation of wealth, of capital. The surface of Mars is littered with thousands of cities, all of which loudly proclaim the inebriation bestowed upon society through the machinations of capitalism; the romanticization of war, the subjugation of women as sex slaves, the unfettered consumption of alcohol enslaving the working class, while those who remain sober become bought with the super-profits reaped from those Reds who remain ignorant of the truth, all of which is heaped upon the single pivotal cornerstone of bourgeois society—that of obedience to those “higher” than yourself and of the overriding importance of class and caste in maintaining the power structure of the elite.
Darrow, recruited by a guerrilla organization called “The Sons of Ares”, quickly finds himself caught in the middle of a vast power-play: one ultimately between domination and emancipation. The Sons of Ares ask him to undertake a near-impossible mission: infiltrate the testing grounds of the imperial elite, the so-called “Golds”, best them at their own games and secure a place in their decadent society so as to one day use his power to support a Red uprising.
Brown’s text here is radical in content. It is the telling of a coming of age story through the lens of vicious class warfare; combining the best parts of a host of influences, from Ender’s Game, the A Song of Fire and Ice series, Divergence, The Hunger Games, and more, Brown moves beyond his literary contemporaries by offering a leftist take on alienation and class society. His fusion of Greek myth, and history (both military and socio-economic), and the accompanying layers of homoerotic subtext, create multifaceted layers to be explored, while his representation of a non-commodity based barter system (the underground society of the Reds, of whom over a billion are counted) act as a stand-in for a primitive communism in decline, one impacted with vices of bourgeois culture and ultimately on the precipice of revolutionary change. Darrow’s (anti-)hero’s journey into the belly of the beast isn’t merely one content to parrot dusty platitudes of peaceful reform: the central issue, after all, is one of class consciousness and of overcoming internal divisions inflicted upon one’s class in an effort to enforce weakness. Violence, in other words, and how it is used to liberate or oppress, is the theme which runs throughout. In this sense Darrow’s story, his journey into adulthood being refracted through the prism of social struggle, is a pure coming of age story, one which hits the heart of what such stories are about.
Red Rising is riddled with tension, anger, and frustration. Darrow’s campaign is not merely one of directionless angst but of focused discipline, one which can easily be extrapolated from contemporary society. All of which is to say that Brown is likely heavily preoccupied with socially pressing issues and perhaps has written this book at least as a partial lashing out against society’s ills. The pages overflow with emotion. Each chapter brings a new development and, more often than not, heralds an approaching twist (of which the plot has several which pull no punches). Characters are not merely alive or believable but filled with vibrancy and attitude; while at times platitudes appear too prevalent, Brown has a style of writing which repurposes clichés and archetypes into characters which you have not seen before or have, in the very least, not seen this way. The author’s skill with a pen shines through with each and every page: the tone, atmosphere, the world-building, the cast, the social critique… all is cast in stunning realism, if not one of a dark, gory nature.
For what it is—a piercingly violent assault on contemporary morality and values—Red Rising is something any fan of dark sci-fi/fantasy will want to read. While it will not hold up to the classics of the sci-fi genre, in terms of the young adult audience which is its target consumer, Brown’s story presents cogent and mature themes; while there are of course weaknesses in the thread, such as Darrow’s conflicted personage and many of the building blocks being recycled from other sources, in the end, Red Rising depicts a dystopia which is only just: one which is a distorted reflection of modernity.
382 pages. Published by Del Ray. $8.86 (Paperback), $16.77 (Hardcover), $6.99 (Kindle), $29.95 (Audible). 2014.
 Prices taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.