Red Rising by Pierce Brown (Del Rey, 2014) 400 pages
It’s hard for me to tell you how good I think this book is. I mean, I understand that I can really like Ann Leckie’s trilogy start Ancillary Justice (I wrote about that book last month: http://www.whatswalterreading.com/2015/01/ancillary-justice-by-ann-leckie/ ) and you might be left cold by the premise and the execution of the world. The science fiction/fantasy genre mansion has many rooms and many corners within those rooms. But when you are not just enjoying, but swept away by a story, all you can do is let it sweep you away and tell as many people as you can about the experience.
I was literally taking the book around with me and saying “listen to this” as I read one passage or another to them. I don’t usually quote stuff from the books in these things. But watch this. This is as they hang the narrator Darrow’s father for, of all things, forbidden singing and dancing in the deep mines of Mars:
“My brother Kieran was supposed to be the stoic one. He was the elder, I the younger. I was supposed to cry. Instead, Kieran bawled like a girl when Little Eo tucked a haemanthus into Father’s left workboot and ran back to her own father’s side. My sister Leanna murmured a lament beside me. I just watched and thought it a shame that he died dancing but without his dancing shoes. On Mars there is not much gravity. So you have to pull the feet to break the neck. They let the loved ones do it.” (This is on page 3.)
This is the story (no spoilers, I promise) of a downtrodden miner on Mars named Darrow who is hung but revived to be “carved” into a Gold, the leading plutocrats of the solar system. He cheats his way through school and exams (bravo!) and is plunked down in a great valley to compete with the privileged offspring of the other Golds to become Primus of the group (named after Olympic gods) and get a good job after this post-grad experience ends. So it’s sort of like real life, except they’d find him out in five minutes today and send him back to the riff-raff in the trailer park.
I found this book different than my usual read. It’s one of those books I could “live in,” which I realize makes little sense to most people and I should explain more. For now, all you need to know is that it means I don’t want the book to end, even though I know it must. The first blurb you see at Amazon is a quote from Scott Sigler: “Ender, Katniss, and now Darrow.” But I tell you honestly, this undervalues Pierce Brown. Nothing against Orson Scott Card and Suzanne Collins (both of whom will likely be unhappy with my remark, and everyone should go right ahead and read their books too) , but I got sucked into Brown’s book and couldn’t pull myself out.
Who is this guy? Pierce Brown has the standard bio blurb in the back and apparently graduated college in 2010, kicked around at some interesting jobs, and then produced a debut novel Red Rising as the first book of a trilogy (I am halfway through the second book). What I really want to know is how the heck he can write like this in fifteen minutes when most of us can’t write like this in fifteen years.
I am almost done with this program at Arizona State University (ASU) called Your Novel Year (YNY), and we had to read all these classics of science fiction, from Frankenstein to Heinlein and Asimov. Many of them I had read, but many I had not, or had not stuck with long enough to get into (action starts seem to have emerged sometime in the mid-1980s…I guess we can blame MTV for that). I found two of them not just good or great, but “transcendent,” which to me means that these are somehow more than just a series of words put to paper: The Stars My Destination by Alfie Bester and A Canticle of Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
Why do I say that? Well, in The Stars My Destination, for example, the hero is trapped in a small room the size of a locker drifting in the asteroid belt among the wreckage of a destroyed spaceship. To survive, he must periodically leave to scavenge more oxygen bottles while hoping someone finds him. But when a passing spaceship nearly kills him, he gets so pissed off that he reads the ship’s repair manual and fixes the engines enough to make it to a nearby asteroid. There, he is set upon by a tattooed sect of salvage folk who marries him off to the ugliest woman among them, after tattooing his face to match the rest of the tribe. Locked in a space yacht to celebrate their wedding night, he attacks his wife and kicks her outside while he blasts off for earth. And all this happens in the first 30 pages.
At this point in the book, you should fasten your seatbelts and get ready for the wild ride. This guy will do anything to survive, and make your dull life seem boring in the process. That’s how Red Rising was for me.
I’m not claiming that Red Rising is a perfect book, or that everyone will like it as much as I did. Of course it’s not perfect. It took me a while to get used to Brown’s rhythms and present tense frenzy, but it fits the desperate mood of the story. There are characters that are mentioned doing earth-shaking things (like Lilanth) but they never have role in the narrative proper. One can only hope that Lilanth has a bigger part in the next two books besides eye-gouging. And I never really sorted out the whole cast of thousands, although there are enough memory-joggers to say “oh, yeah, that’s the girl from when they first arrived…” There’s a map at the start, but it confused me more than enlightened me as the book went on.
Brown uses a lot of neologisms, but he’s 700 years or so in the future. They never seem contrived or forced and there is enough context (well, but the second or third occurrence) to quickly puzzle out the meaning. Just keep going.
Another potential drawback is that the hero Darrow is a step or three ahead of everyone else and always has a plan. That’s okay, but with few exceptions, everyone who Darrow depends on acting a certain way to fall into his brilliant traps acts precisely that way and Darrow triumphs. But it never goes so far that the book fails. And Darrow gets slapped down by the proctors enough to give him challenges every stage along the way.
There’s enough blood to satisfy the most manic video game player. But competitions with high stakes, financial or otherwise, are often vicious, even when everyone is in all senses a winner to begin with. I can’t resist noting that Henry Kissinger said that academic arguments among professors are so vicious because the stakes are so low. In that world, the size of the name on the office door can mean everything.
Also, I give Brown really high marks for gender equality. The females in this book are as blood-thirsty, devious, and powerful as the males. And everyone who postpones their quest for a round of sex comes to a bad end. How’s that for a cautionary tale?
I’m not saying the Pierce Brown is my new favorite author – yet. But he’s right up there. The bio says that he’s “available for select readings and lectures” but I wonder about that. Does that mean he’ll read to the Golds but not the Reds? Does it mean that he gets paid a lot to lecture on social justice? Probably the publisher added that part.
So it’s not that I want to follow him around like a Grateful Dead groupie. I just want to know his secret.