Usually when people talk about books you hear how they ‘couldn’t put it down.’ My experience with Red Rising by Pierce Brown was the opposite; I ‘couldn’t pick it up.’ I wasn’t really very interested in the book for a number of reasons. First, I thought it had been mislabeled; it appeared to be a sci fi book, not a dystopian book. No offense to fans of sci fi, but that’s not my jam. I think there are enough potential interesting stories to be told about this planet without going farther out. I like how dystopian and apocalyptic books build a world in our own backyard and because the stories are here, we can still recognize and relate to them despite the constructs of a dystopian society or the aftermath of an apocalypse. Red Rising takes place on Luna, what we would call Mars and it starts off slow, a sort of Grapes of Wrath interplanetary style. Don’t get me wrong, the latter book is a classic, so I didn’t think setting it on another planet would add much to something that has already been done. Also, I have gotten used to the kick ass, take no prisoners type of main character in these books and Darrow seemed a reluctant protagonist far too willing to compromise and concede while his family and his love suffered. I didn’t want a Joad, I wanted a Norma Rae! However, maybe the best heroes are the reluctant ones, the ones who are conflicted about the part they will or must play.
Also, far from the book being about an alien culture, it turns out that Darrow and his people were originally from our own planet Earth. His ancestors were sent to Mars to mine a substance that will make the planet inhabitable for future generations, so his labor under poor living conditions comes off as noble more than apathetic. Darrow lives with his perpetually hungry family, minus the father who was hung for a non-violent protest of the conditions they live in. He works as a helldiver in the mines, a position both respected as well as dangerous, and comes home every night to Eo, his childhood friend grown into his love and wife. What happens to Eo is the catalyst that expels Darrow out of his family, his tribe, and his home to fulfill her dream.
Up until that crossroads I kept pushing this book aside to read other books and was truly at the point of giving up on it, something I almost never do. The same book that I reluctantly would pick up and force myself to read a couple pages of suddenly became a book I could not put down. Yes, it takes place on a another planet, and yes there are technologies and even some creatures not of this earth, but those more sci fi elements stopped bothering me when I discovered the dystopian story within. It turns out that Darrow’s world was much bigger than he or his people knew and his mission becomes much bigger than his own tragedies. In fact, he wrestles with his own desires and whether they will help or hinder him in his new role. Is he motivated by love, anger, revenge, or a higher purpose? He continually shifts among these motivators as he makes his way through a world where he is an interloper, a world he must embrace in order to succeed in his mission, at the same time that he loathes it. That becomes a cornerstone of his struggle, when does pretending to feel a certain way become an actual emotion? When does an enemy you pretend is a comrade become a true friend? Can he convince others that he is someone he is not, without becoming that person?
I wasn’t 100% certain whether this was a standalone book, or if it was a series, so I checked it out online. At that point I came across a heated discussion about how he ‘stole’ from The Hunger Games, which stole from Battle Royale, etc. Frankly, I don’t care, after all isn’t there a line about ‘ there is nothing new under the sun’? Maybe I would care if a work was very similar to something else AND poorly done. However, I thought this book had as much in common with The Testing series as it did The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Flies and dozens of other stories. That’s only because it shares universal story telling elements such as man vs. man, man vs. society and man vs. himself, and it does it in such an exciting and thoughtful way that I am glad I didn’t stop reading it.