I just finished binge reading the first five books of Pierce Brown’sbrilliant Red RisingSeries, and now I’m waiting impatiently for the next book. Although to be honest, I really need a break to breathe, to reflect, and to recover from five books worth of gut-wrenching, nail-biting, unputdownable intensity.
Brown says his inspiration for the series was the plight of Irish immigrants in the 19th century and the disenfranchisement of the working classes, though it was Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigon,ethat inspired the beginning of Red Rising. It is when the hero of the story, helldiver, Darrow, forfeits his life to bury his wife, who has been hanged for singing the forbidden death song of her people, that he is literally remade as the ultimate weapon by the Sons of Ares resistance movement. Darrow’s people, the Reds, are the lowest social rank in the highly stratified Empire. They have been taught that they are suffering pioneers and heroes of the Empire. The Reds are the expendable work force living their lives entirely underground on Mars, where they labour in the treacherous helium 3 mines. Helium 3 is essential for terraforming. But Mars has long been terraformed into a paradise to which the Reds have neither access or knowledge -- all accomplished through the sacrifices of generations of their people. Darrow’s task is to earn acceptance into the training institute for the elite of the controlling class known as Golds. To call the Institute Hogwarts in Hell is an understatement. Darrow must survive and complete the horrific training in order to infiltrate the upper echelons of Gold society and implement the Sons of Ares’ plan of a takeover from within.
The series chronicles the horrendous cost of the fight for liberation that leads to revolution and the destabilization of a society. In the paying of that price, the lines between heroes and villains become blurred. What are desperate people willing to do to free themselves from tyranny, and at what point does the rebel become the tyrant, or even the monster? Can a new world rise without the destruction of the old? Because Brown’s Red Rising series is written on a solar system-wide scale, that question is larger than life and addressed clearly and brutally.
No one gets away unscathed, and the cost is often devastating. All of the horrors of war and its aftermath that have been brought into our living rooms since television first broadcast the Vietnam War are amplified in Brown’s novels and made both more shocking and more impersonal by the wholesale use of nuclear weapons capable of destroying entire planets.
Darrow, later known as the Reaper, beautifully inhabits the role of both the flawed saviour, and the villainized mass murderer, who carries on his shoulders the dream of his people and the annihilation of an ordered way of life. Even at his darkest moments, he is relatable in his humanity and his longing for family and home. All of the characters are multi-dimensional and full of flaws and quirks that always surprise. They humanize and ground a story that might have easily become a depersonalized look at war and the rise and fall of an empire. This series was definitely not escapist reading for me, and yet I couldn’t put it down. The story of Red Rising feels very much like Brown is holding a mirror up to readers in hopes that we’ll catch a glimpse of the price paid for a society where those of us in the middle may live happily and blissfully ignorant of the cost.