If I'd known the plot of Red Rising I never would have bought it. I'd have called it a knockoff of countless YA post-apocalyptic novels flooding the market and screens right now. The protagonist is 16 years old, and the core of the story is sexy teenagers running around killing each other. Even the marketing of the book compares the protagonist, Darrow, to both Katniss and Ender. (1)
But I don't think anyone would call this book YA. To begin with, though the hero is no older than many YA protagonists, he is no kid. At the beginning of the book he is married and has a job, a real one. He's a Helldiver, basically a badass miner who scrambles around next to a burning hot drill digging helium 3 out of the crust of Mars. He's one of a group of pioneers who are preparing the planet for the coming settlers from Earth, or so he's told. But they aren't treated like heroes, but more like dirt on the bottom of a hypercapitalist caste-driven oligarchy's shoes. Basically, Darrow is a science-fiction version of the narrator of Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons."
Also, the book is exceptionally brutal, even compared to the new string of YA/PA novels out now. The core of the plot is an intramural game of capture the flag with a body count that makes the Hunger Games look like a rounding error, but it's not just a numbers game. It's that the kids playing (and aside from Darrow, they're most certainly kids) act exactly as badly as you'd expect from a bunch of teenagers given weapons, a single-minded objective and absolutely no restraint from adults. There is plenty of torture and mutilation, and though it's always "offscreen" and never glorified or titillating, there is rape. I read my son the whole Hunger Games trilogy, only skipping the most horrible parts at the end of Mockingjay. But though he's several years older than when I read him those books, I wouldn't think of reading (or letting him read) this book at the age he is now.
Most interestingly this series toys with being political in a way that other YA/PA novels don't. Specifically, it is a challenge to the sort of implied classist meritocracy that's the basis of today's neoliberal economy, and the idea that everyone who's sitting on top is sitting there because they are the toughest, smartest, hardest-working people who've been shifted to the place they deserve by our educational and economic filters.
Because the kids that are fighting to the death in the bloody play-war Darrow is engaged in are not the Reds, the bottom rung of the color-coded caste system to which Darrow is born. They are all from the top-ranking Gold class, and they are the top one percent of that class, those aspiring to be the Peerless Scarred, the creme de la creme that rule everyone.
The fact that Darrow is a "sheep in wolf's clothing among the wolves," a Red mole in the Gold camp with the intention of destroying them, is not a spoiler; it's revealed in the prologue. There Darrow hears a Gold warn about the dangers of "Demokracy" and the lie that everyone is equal. The Golds rule everyone else because they're the most powerful and most ruthless. And the Golds themselves will be ruled by the best of the Golds, which will include some of the students he's speaking to -- those that survive.
"But I am no Gold," says Darrow. "I am a Red...He is wrong. None of them will survive."
Darrow is, in some ways, the weakest element of the book. He is very nearly a Mary Sue; at the beginning of the book he's already the toughest, smartest and bravest of the Reds, and in the process of being turned into a Gold he's made even tougher and smarter. His "flaws" are exactly the sort of flaws that make a hero seem more heroic: he's too brave, to righteous, too defiant of false authority.
The complication that allows him to be interesting are based on the dangers of sleeping with the enemy, literally in some cases. Because in penetrating the Gold society Darrow learns that as badly as the Golds treat the Reds, in some ways they treat their own children worse. And though the Golds as a class are horrific, as individual people they are as good and bad as any other people are. He can't help but form bonds and romances with the Golds he was sent to overthrow, and his relationships with them are strained by his memory of where he came from.
This is especially true as he confronts the unfairness of the system that the aspiring Gold children are faced with. The purpose of the play war the kids are put into is to sort out the weakest of their children and turn those that survive into bloody-minded opportunistic killers just like their parents are. There is a psychotic evil logic to this, an antidote to the dangers of falling into decadence that constantly threatens the Golds; indeed, most Golds do fall into decadence and are known as "pixies."
But part of the point of the book is that even such a deadly efficient meritocracy will never overcome the fact that the people in power just can't help but put a finger on the scale. Sometimes it's to favor their own family or political faction, and sometimes it's just to show that they can.
This is demonstrated before Darrow makes his color transition. Early in the book an award of food and luxuries his mining family won fair and square for their work is blatantly taken from them just to prove that the Reds can't really change anything, only the beginning of the cruel injustices we see inflicted on the Reds. The first few chapters, where the vicious inequalities the Reds live under are made explicit, are by far the most engaging part of the book. They also make a promise that the book hasn't yet fulfilled, but might yet in the sequel: the potential to be a truly revolutionary piece of speculative fiction.
By a "revolutionary" piece of spec-fic I don't mean something that revolutionizes speculative fiction. This is an admirable goal but not a rare one; someone wins this prize every five or ten years and then things slip back to how they were. I mean something much rarer and more frightening: a piece of speculative fiction that makes people want to have a revolution.
The closest books I've seen to achieving that goal are China Mieville's "Iron Council" and Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother." Both are in their own way dangerous, but neither quite had the audience to make the difference that they could have, though "Little Brother" still might if it's ever turned into a movie. Both are better books than Red Rising, but a revolutionary book might not be the best written.
Part of the reason that goal is never achieved is that the revolution promised in the beginning of the book doesn't come by the end; this is, after all, the beginning of a trilogy. The next book will be a good sign of where Pierce Brown wants to take this. He could make it into an entertaining thrill ride for Hunger Games fans to graduate into when they're a little too old for the limits on YA, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Or he could make it into something really dangerous.
1. Of course, Ender's Game was never marketed as YA either, but it probably would have been if it had come out now.