Dystopia isn’t a new trend in YA. It’s been exploited successfully over the past decade, spawning series and movies that are, for the most part, forgettable. I have avoided most of it because I often don’t find YA fiction challenging enough, despite the fact the books usually explore my favourite themes. There are always exceptions, however, and last year I stumbled across one of them.
Red Rising appealed to me for several reasons, the first of which was availability. My local lending library doesn’t add audio titles to the Science Fiction and Fantasy shelves very often, so new books are always notable. The cover copy nearly put me off, though:
“Ender, Katniss, and now Darrow.”
I loved Ender’s Game. The Hunger Games? Not so much. But, the book was new, free to read, and it was on audio. I queued it up…and lost hours and then days as I invented tasks in order to keep listening. I listen to audio books when I’m running errands and doing chores. By the end of Red Rising, my house sparkled and my heart was captured by a new hero.
Briefly, Red Rising – and the entire trilogy – is the story of a young ‘Red’ named Darrow, who rises from slavery to challenge the ‘Golds’ who rule the solar system in a rigidly hierarchal manner. Society is sorted into colours and ruled top down by the Golds. The larger tragedy, however, is that the Reds are not just slaves. They’re kept in ignorance, completely unaware that the goal they strive for, the terraforming of Mars, was achieved hundreds of years ago.
Red Rising begins the story of Darrow’s ascension. He is abducted by an extremist group known as the Sons of Ares, and made a part of their rebellion. Disguised as a Gold, he makes a bid for entry into the Institute, a brutal training ground that separates the wheat from the chaff. If he survives, he will become one of the ‘peerless scarred’, the Golds that hold sway over all the other Golds.
The experience of the Institute is probably what Red Rising has in common with most YA fiction. It’s The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game all rolled into one chaotic ball. But smarter, more visceral and less camp. The absolutes are fickle and while the world feels morally bankrupt, the scope is large enough for there to be realistic pockets of serenity as well as resistance. The choices Darrow has to make are gut-wrenching and heartbreaking.
What makes both Red Rising and the sequel, Golden Son, so interesting, however, is that Darrow doesn’t always take the obvious solution, and he doesn’t always succeed. He doesn’t always learn from his mistakes, either, which is painful to read, but in a way grounding and exciting. The discovery that not all Golds are made equal only deepens the plot and emotional pull, putting Darrow and the reader at near constant emotional odds. At the end of the book, he has a final choice to make and even though you know which it has to be, his decision feels part let down, part vindication. Weird, right? Therein lays the hook for book two.
Golden Son opens approximately two years after the end of Red Rising – which is at once exciting and a relief. Darrow is in his final hours at the Academy, apparently winning his final battle. Four years of hard work are about to be paid in full. Then we have the twist. Relieved I did not have to read three another hundred pages of kids vs. the establishment, I devoured Golden Son, losing time and sleep as author Pierce Brown once again drew me into his world and did not let go until well after I closed the book.
This time ‘round, the prose is a little more elegant. Still simple, but really, I’m not sure the story would be as powerful if presented any other way. The brutality rockets up several notches, as does the scheming and ultimate cost. Darrow is firmly enmeshed in Gold society now and they’re really little more than a pack of beautiful wolves. That so many are aware of how sick their society really is adds a poignantly sad note. Golden Son is a portrait of a world that is eating itself from the inside out.
In the first book, Darrow learns the Golds are human and that they can bleed. But he still does not truly know and understand them and those lessons will come too late. In this second book, he is pushed toward godhood by the very people he means to crush, and then he discovers that not even gods are infallible.
Many will find Darrow’s naiveté annoying. I yelled at the book several times. In between sighing and chewing on my lips, I counselled the young man, knowing that I didn’t fully appreciate the Golds either. But I appreciated that Darrow is who he is and that for him to suddenly be more would shorten the journey and make it too easy. Then we would lose what makes these books so special – the absolute humanity, as can only be portrayed by such a brutal setting. For all his cleverness and determination, and the enhancements that come with being made Gold, Darrow is still just a man. Just one man.
It’s going to be difficult to wait for the final book in this trilogy. But I have no doubt it will be worth it, regardless of just how Mr. Brown chooses to finish this spectacular tale.
Written for SFCrowsnest.