Darrow is a Red, the lowest of all the social castes who live deep within the caverns and tunnels of Mars, never seeing the sunlight, one of many willing to sacrifice his own short, harsh life in order to create a future for those not yet born. His purpose is to mine the planet for minerals, feeding the transformation of Mars into another Earth. It’s a brutalised existence. The work is dangerous, food is scarce, joy even rarer. And other factions watch every move, dissenters are dragged to the noose and loved ones must pull on their feet to ease their death. There’s not enough gravity for a clean kill. In rituals reminiscent of other ages on Earth, the Reds have one solace – to dance and to sing songs passed on from generation to generation. But if one should sing a forbidden song, one that might give the listener hope, then the singer is executed by those who aren’t Red but are Gold.
Darrow is a young man who lost his father to the hangman and is now about to lose someone else dear to him in the same way. As one of the strongest and bravest of his kind, his increasing rage is targeted by a growing rebellious force hidden in the mines. Darrow is transformed into a Gold, enhanced to become a member of a super race, majestic, proud, hard to kill. His mission is to infiltrate the governing race, be accepted as one of them in one of their command training schools, to be adopted into one of the great elite families, and that means journeying to the surface. And that’s when Darrow learns his great mistake – Mars is already a rich, green land fit for life, as long, of course, that it’s the right colour.
Red Rising is the first in a trilogy and it meticulously builds this extraordinary world around our young hero. From the mines of the underworld to the mountains and forests of the surface, Mars is brought to life in all its horror and beauty. This is, though, a grim tale. Darrow’s painful transformation into this superhuman, completed by the anguish that he goes through, is difficult to witness but not nearly as much as the utter horror of what he and his fellow Gold students must undergo within the command school. A particular strength of Red Rising is that we know all too well that Red is Good and Gold is Bad but the ordeals suffered by these students blurs this clear line. It is impossible not to feel deeply for these young people, whatever their colour.
I’m not a fan of comparing books with books but comparisons with The Hunger Games are inevitable and, I think, justified. Much of Red Rising comprises deadly games – a war – between groups of students but even before they get that far there is an act that each must take part in that gave me nightmares. Harder to bear because it followed on the deceptively ‘civilised’ introduction of the students to the school and to each other. It is almost as if a conscious decision has been made to outdo The Hunger Games in brutality. The godliness and inhumanity of the golden characters in Red Rising also reminded me of the Roman theme of The Hunger Games as did the mentors that each student is assigned and the factions that they represent. But there are original strengths here, particularly in the prose and in some of its shocks and jolts, plus the outstanding character of Darrow. The first third in particular is superb.
Despite the youth of the Darrow, Red Rising is not a Young Adult novel and so free reign is given to its language, themes and violence. At times, I found the tension relentless and the increasing desperation of the combatants difficult. Red Rising is a harrowing novel, no doubt about that at all, and its young characters are fed by rage, fear and deceit, revealing more powerfully than anything else could the type of society that controls this planet of Mars. Contributing in no small way to the tension of the novel is the fact that it is told in the first person and in the present tense by Darrow himself. What he feels, what he has to watch or do, we’re there behind his eyes.
Although the first part of a trilogy, Red Rising finishes well, giving it a completeness of its own, but by the time it ends this reader at least was ready to fly that red flag and open the mines. School is over.