Execution: ⭐⭐⭐ 
Enjoyment:⭐⭐⭐

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Key Descriptors: dystopian, revolution, battle royale, violence, political, science fiction

Premise: In a society with strict castes denoted by “colors,” one Red caste mining slave is chosen by a group of rebels to infiltrate and destroy the Golds who preserve the status quo from within. 

Review: I’d like to start by saying that I actually liked this book quite a bit. However, there were a few too many tired tropes going on that bugged me just a hair too much to bump this up into the 4 (or even 5) star rating. Let’s start with….

The Good: Bio-horror is my catnip. I LOVE seeing books that take weird bio-horror and run with it. Borne by VanderMeer, the remade in China Mieville’s Bas-Lag books, Twig by Wildbow… love it. It’s so creepy and such a good little piece of scifi that doesn’t seem to happen as often in pure fantasy, which I think is a pity – I’d love to see more magical bio-horror! Why turn someone into a frog when you can just utterly destroy their sense of humanity and turn them into some hybrid eldritch terror, you get my drift? In Red Rising, we get a somewhat understated dose of this that I truly hope is expounded on further in the rest of the books. 

In order to infiltrate the Gold society, he first must be remade – “carved” – into a Gold himself. He must look the part. He must have the physical strength. The durability. You get the idea. This section of the book is what made me say, “oooh. Yes. This is a book for me!” I would have loved to see the Carver get more screen time. He’s bizarre, insane, and intriguing. 

“My profession is to create, little bird,” he says one night as we sit together in the darkness.

“Oh, the hard parts are over, my darling. You are a brilliant boy, you know. They have shown me the tapes from the other procedures where other Carvers tried this. Oh, how clumsy the other Carvers were, how weak the other subjects. But you are strong and I am brilliant.”

Following this, we see Darrow admitted into the Golds’ academy, where the Peerless Scarred are trained. These positions lead to military commands and apprenticeships following graduation, which the rebels intend Darrow to take advantage of.

Darrow is a tad bit of a Mary Sue, I must confess. He’s always the best, smartest, et cetera. I’m fairly tolerant of Mary Sues in general – your mileage may vary. People are consistently astounded by him. Highest entrance exam scores, incredible dexterity, somehow manages to catch up to the people who have been learning to fight and duel all their lives in under a year, et cetera, et cetera. However, I have to admit: I had a great time watching him beat the odds, gather together a cabal of wolf-pelt wearing blitz attack underdogs, and utterly upending the scenarios he’s placed in. Sure, it’s a bit much… but it’s still a good time. Sue me, I sometimes shamelessly enjoy my Mary Sues. 

The Bad:

If there is one trope that I utterly hate because it’s so tired and boring, it’s killing off and hurting women so that men are motivated by it. And good lord does Red Rising lean heavily on this trope. Darrow’s prime motivation is his dead wife, which, ok, I can handle being his backstory…. if that was the only instance. 

Repeatedly throughout this book, women are abused, raped, or otherwise tossed to the wolves just so that Darrow has a leadership problem to resolve. It’s ridiculous. One guy tries to rape a woman simply because Darrow said he wasn’t allowed to rape anyone. Couldn’t he have found some other way to challenge Darrow’s authority? And all this while Darrow’s second-in-command is a woman! It’s ridiculous. This same character goes on to be trusted and faces exactly no consequences for his behavior. Women don’t even display worry or anger at him once they’re out of the academy. They’re somehow content to work with this person who they know is a rapist.

I ask him if he tried to rape Nyla.

“Laws are silent in times of war,” Tactus drawls.”

“Don’t quote Cicero to me,” I say. “You are held to a higher standard than a marauding centurion.”

I announce that rape will never be permitted, and then I ask Nyla the punishment she would give. As she told me before, she wants no punishment.

Later on, a woman in Darrow’s army is kidnapped just to make a point. The truly galling thing is that kidnapping one of Darrow’s other key male players would have been just as effective at moving the plot along. There was no reason it had to be one of the women. She’s tortured, assaulted, et cetera. It’s horrible, and I don’t understand why the author chose to use sexual violence here. It is simply gratuitous.

These are far from the only examples.

While many women outside of the main story are shown to be in authority positions (women sit on the academy’s highest board, women are high up in the rebellion, et cetera), very few of the women in the story itself have any agency at all. They are primarily reactive, and the ones with the most screen time around Darrow practically devote themselves to him, even over family ties. This is in direct contrast to a man who begins a blood feud with Darrow over a dead brother. It would have been nice to see women making more decisions and making more of an impact to the plot.  Brown attempted to make a feminist world with strong female characters, but fell flat on his face and ended up with “strong female characters.”

Women are simply used as a convenient device to move Darrow’s plot along, and that’s what brought this book down to a three-star book for me. Loved the good parts, but this was far too pervasive overall. 

Please for the love of god let the next book include reasonable women, get rid of the gratuitous rape and assault, and give Darrow some motivations that aren’t sex-related.

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If you enjoyed Red Rising by Pierce Brown, you might also enjoy:

  • Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
  • Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss