Book #65: Red Rising (2014)

9781470380281author: Pierce Brown
language: English
length: 972 minutes (16 hours 12 minutes)
finished on: 11 July 2014

I can’t exactly remember how this was advertised on the Humble Bundle site – perhaps as sci-fi or as “young adult” fiction, but I did see a couple of things comparing it to The Hunger Games (which I still haven’t read), and my assessment of the plot summary was “Harry Potter in space” – it concerns a boy who lives on Mars who infiltrates a prestigious school of the upper classes, essentially. The author’s bio includes the word Hogwarts, which led me further along that trail.

Having read the book, I’d say it was less like Harry Potter and more like Ender’s Game – and although I’ve read neither of The Hunger Games nor Game of Thrones, it’s what I imagine both of their plots to be like too. The Game theme is relevant, because when the boy enters this prestigious school, he and the other characters are launched into what is called exactly a game, but includes a lot of death and destruction, and a pseudo-medieval setting, despite being ostensibly on a terraformed Mars in the distant future.

There’s a lot of buildup before that, though – the society is introduced right from the start as a dystopia, with all the population of the world being sorted into colours, but they are colours like red (the lowest), gold (the highest), and others like brown, pink or green. It’s unclear exactly how this affects their appearance – tattoos given at birth and eye-coloration are mentioned, but for instance, are browns all brown-skinned? Are reds all redheads? Furthermore, is this disrespectful to real-life racial tensions? Golds are described in the most detail – they seem to be veritable giants, the epitome of strength and possibly intelligence, but I’m still unsure whether they’re all blonde-haired. Certainly, the colour affects one’s position in life – golds are leaders, pinks are prostitutes and reds are slaves. But we are only introduced to about one character in the whole book who is neither a gold nor a red, so ultimately it all feels a bit irrelevant.

Naturally, the main character is from the lowest caste, and is a miner in the tunnels under Mars. When his wife is executed for an act of civil disobedience, he goes to commit suicide or something, but is saved by some activists who want him to infiltrate the school for golds on the surface – but that also involves educating him of the terraformed surface itself, as its very existence was hidden from the underground population of reds to keep them from rebelling (I guess).

Once he gets into the school, after a gruelling physical transformation, the book takes on the pseudo-fantasy style that I mentioned, and mostly ignores the Martian setting, except for mentioning that these superhumans can run very fast due to the low gravity. The place is terraformed, so the author can get away with a lot in terms of the description of the landscape, but there’s nothing about this part of the story that needed to be on Mars to be told (also, when I found the physical book in a bookstore recently, I noticed it also had a fantasy-style map of the school’s area – I wonder if I delve a bit deeper I could find where it’s supposed to be on Google Earth’s Mars section). I also groaned outwardly whenever Mars’ “twin moons” were mentioned, because it is strongly implied that the author envisages them as two shining lights similar to Earth’s Moon, when in reality they’re fast-moving dots racing around the planet at breakneck speed (this seems to be a depressingly common error that could be corrected with minimal research about Mars).

So, the setting was not utilized effectively, and the society felt unrealistic and overcomplicated, but the characters were alright, if a little numerous. The plot in terms of shifting alliances and intrigue was also very interesting and told reasonably effectively. I did also like the way the author simulated evolving language and various shibboleths that would only be used by certain castes, although I also think there weren’t enough of these, since there are only about two per caste or so.

I also liked that the audiobook’s narrator took the effort to use different accents with the different castes – his native accent is Irish, and he uses it for the reds, while he puts on a posh British accent for the golds. It’s that kind of attention to detail that leaves me with a good impression of an audiobook, and makes it much easier to keep listening. The audiobook also decides on a tune for an important song that plays a major part in the plot, and after the book itself is finished, a professional singer sings it with accompanied music. It was a nice touch.

This all makes it like most other media I’ve consumed recently: I broadly enjoyed it, but I’m not sure why, because when I pick it apart, I only find more and more negative points. It’s flawed, but readable.

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