Friday, July 29, 2016
Red Rising Trilogy - Pierce Brown
The tl:dr version of my review is this: don't waste time putting your pants on, run out RIGHT NOW and grab this whole trilogy. Don't bother with socks either, because they're about to be BLOWN OFF into the inky blackness of emotionally unforgiving space.
I am a commitment-phobe when it comes to series reads, because I've been burned before (I'm looking at you, Laurel K.). But I passed by this one on the shelf several times and finally picked up Red Rising despite what I thought was my better judgement. This series proceeded to surprise, engage, and utterly emotionally destroy me, and isn't that what we're all looking for in a great book, after all?
The upshot of the story is that Darrow, a young dude who lives and works in the dangerous mines of Mars, witnesses his equally young wife commit a relatively innocuous act of treason by speaking out in her way about the injustice of the caste system their society has imposed. She's hung for it, and in their Red tradition, Darrow is forced to participate by pulling her feet to snap her neck. It's an eloquent metaphor for everything Darrow does over the course of the trilogy, from subjecting himself to extensive surgeries that make him one of the pinnacle elite Golds, to molding himself into an instrument of violence and war. He is forced over and over again to make the choice between preserving his personal humanity and offering it up as a sacrifice for what he believes is the greater good.
But this guy is not a messiah of Red or Gold. (Okay, well...there was this one time...two times? Whoops. Maybe there is room to draw a parallel there.) He's desperately, basely human in so many ways, from the love he shares with his new bloodthirsty family to the strategic mistakes he makes in both over- and underestimating the people around him. And that's really what's at the heart of these stories: humanizing the big picture, and a mix of grand scale loss with the intimate losses that win or lose the war. It could not be more personal than witnessing and participating in a revolution with Darrow the Reaper as he builds family and loses family for his cause. That cobbled-together family crosses all the castes, and each member of it humanizes another strata in this dystopian society where your Color defines who you are.
Real talk: I can't say I wasn't kind of frustrated by the message here; Darrow struggles internally with the difference of change through peaceful measures and through violent ones, and I really wanted him to find a peaceful out even if that meant a dreadfully boring third book. That does not happen, and these books are a bloodbath. By the third book, I was seriously concerned that none of the characters were going to make it to the last pages...and not very many did. But Brown is a master of twisting the knife by orchestrating emotional and symbolic deaths for almost every character. He also has a great handle on the negative space of novel crafting; you are literally in Darrow's head for every twist, every strategic happening, and Brown still manages to surprise and mislead in a way that makes this story an adventure on every page. It's a trilogy that demands that you appreciate the orchestrated violence and also appreciate the depth of the philosophical questions the premise raises about our own society. Borrowing a gaming term, it's a tank of a thinker.
In terms of relatively contemporary works, this trilogy combines elements of several mythologies, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Tolkien's works, and the first book in particular could generally be described as The Hunger Games on some kind of hypothetical literary steroid that makes book muscles and brains explode by interplanetary proportions. It's thoughtful, extraordinarily and creatively violent, and it's unsettlingly timely to the social struggles we're facing right now. It is a trilogy well worth the emotional scarring you will suffer reading it. Get some kleenex, prepare to cringe through the next 1300+ pages, and resign yourself to staying up until 4am to finish "just one more chapter." It is an amazing ride.