7 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Red RisingTitle: Red Rising

Author: Pierce Brown

Genre: Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, Dystopia

Publisher: Del Rey (US) / Hodder & Stoughton (UK)
Publication Date: January 2014
Hardcover: 382 Pages

The war begins…

Darrow is a Helldiver, one of a thousand men and women who live in the vast caves beneath the surface of Mars. Generations of Helldivers have spent their lives toiling to mine the precious elements that will allow the planet to be terraformed. Just knowing that one day people will be able to walk the surface of the planet is enough to justify their sacrifice. The Earth is dying, and Darrow and his people are the only hope humanity has left.

Until the day Darrow learns that it is all a lie. Mars is habitable – and indeed has been inhabited for generations by a class of people calling themselves the Golds. The Golds regard Darrow and his fellows as slave labour, to be exploited and worked to death without a second thought.

With the help of a mysterious group of rebels, Darrow disguises himself as a Gold and infiltrates their command school, intent on taking down his oppressors from the inside.

But the command school is a battlefield. And Darrow isn’t the only student with an agenda…

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a trilogy

How did I get this book: ARC from the UK Publisher

Format (e- or p-): Print ARC

Why did I read this book: Oh, I’ve been waiting for this book for AGES and have been eagerly eyeing it on my TBR ever since Ana brought me a copy from the UK publisher. FINALLY, as this is our unofficial “March on Mars” month, I had the chance to read this highly anticipated book.

Trigger warning: Rape.


This is going to be a confusing and, frankly, tough review to write. I loved this book. I hated this book. I was alternately enraptured and disgusted with this book. In other words, my reaction and relationship with Red Rising is… well… complicated.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the story:

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.

Darrow is sixteen years old and a Red. On Mars, this means he and his fellow Reds are the lowest of the low, below the Grays, the Coppers, the Pinks, and especially the Golds. Darrow is also a Helldiver – in fact, he’s the best Helldiver in the subterranean mining colony of Lykos – a skilled, risky Red who steers his clan’s drill into Mars’ subterranean caverns, doing his part to terraform the planet for the benefit of future generations. All seems to be going Darrow’s way – he has a loving and lovely wife, and he’s sure he’s just led his Lambda clan to receive the highly-desired Laurel for fulfilling their drilling Quota faster than any of Lykos’s other twenty-three driller teams.

At least, that’s what Darrow thinks.

In a single day, his world is torn apart. The Laurel isn’t awarded to Lambda despite their winning it fair and square; his lovely wife is beaten and hanged as a martyr when she rebels against the oppression of the higher colors. Darrow, utterly broken and unwilling to carry on without Eo by his side, commits an unforgivable act and is hanged as the Gold ArchGovernor watches on.

But Darrow doesn’t die.

“Now you understand,” Dancer says. “We are deceived.” Beyond the glass sprawls a city.

Darrow is saved by a determined Red named Dancer, who dreams of a free future on Mars. It is Dancer who recruits Darrow to his rebellion, who shows Darrow the truth – that Mars has long since been terraformed, that the Reds are left to toil beneath the planet’s surface while the Golds above reap the rewards of their labor. Dancer has a plan to overthrow the higher colors, and Darrow is to be his tool; a weapon to be broken and reformed in the body of a Gold, to lie and ascend through their ranks and help secure a future for the Reds. Darrow, determined to fulfill his wife Eo’s dream, agrees to Dancer’s risky plan – and his body is carved and reformed in the shape of a glorious Gold.

My skin is too soft, too lustrous, too faultless. I don’t know my body without scars. I don’t know the back of my own hands. Eo would not know me.

As a Gold, Darrow must pass an entrance exam to train at the illustrious Academy – home of the future 1% of Golds who become great leaders across the galaxy. The Academy, however, is nothing like Darrow imagined it to be, and soon he’s embroiled in a battle to the death to showcase his brutality, intelligence, and leadership ability – all the traits needed for the most elite Golds to succeed. And succeed Darrow does… but at what cost to himself, to his true family, to his own truth as a Red?

Billed as a cross between The Hunger Games, Enders Game and Lord of the Flies – on Mars – you could say that there’s a good amount of hype preceding Red Rising. In truth, I’m not sure that any of these comparisons have any real substance (other than fuel to feed the insatiable hype machine); Red Rising isn’t really any of these things.

Pierce Brown’s debut novel is an ambitious beast. Told in three parts, Darrow’s story is first the story of an ambitious young driller, followed by an impostor Count of Monte Cristo-esque revenge story, followed by a murderous, violent rampage in one of the best war game simulation I’ve had the pleasure of reading in years. There’s a class that fights to the death, yes, but really Red Rising has more Spartacus than The Hunger Games, more low-tech science fantasy than interplanetary space opera. And… well, I kinda loved the book. I hated it at times and for very specific, hugely problematic issues, but I cannot deny that I was enraptured with the story and eagerly ate up every second of Darrow’s bloodydamn story.

I’ll start with the good stuff: the world, the writing, and the gorydamn plotting. I am a sucker for these three basic elements, and nine times out of ten, when they are done well I’ll love the novel. In Red Rising, readers are entreated to a sweeping story of revenge and rebellion that becomes more complicated the deeper that Darrow gets sucked into the machinations of the Gold world. This isn’t a new story by any stretch of the imagination, but the lengths that Darrow goes to in order to become a Gold (physically, as the Golds are nearly superhuman with their genetic enhancements) and to fit in with his brutal classmates (his first test is killing a friend) is no small thing. I loved and believed in the stratification of Martian society (and, by extension, this color coded universe) – while it sounds simplistic at first, Brown does a phenomenal job of detailing the trappings of power and the Machiavellian approach to life, education, and governance amongst the Gold class. Similarly, there’s a style and difference in the speech between the high Golds and the lowly Reds, from slang (copious amounts of goodman, gorydamn and bloodydamn litter the text) to hierarchical structures and loyalties to blood versus to one’s “house” or clan. It’s all very fascinating, compelling stuff.

Meanwhile, the characterizations – particularly the characterization of our big o hero protagonist – are more mixed. This brings me to the Big But part of this review; the negative, problematic things that I did not like very much at all. From a character perspective, Pierce Brown is writing from the Hero’s Journey school of storytelling as evidenced with Red-cum-Gold Big Bloodydamn Hero, Darrow. This type of blatant, do-no-wrong heroism isn’t my particular favorite flavor of protagonist; particularly when he’s of the Man who has Lost His Wife and Must Protect the Helpless variety. Darrow’s entire arc is one of being reluctantly called and forced into action; his wife is the rebel that martyrs herself so that Darrow can become a Hero; his leader Dancer is the one with the grand plan and hookup to make Darrow the Gold that he becomes. There’s also the problem that Darrow is exceptional at basically everything – he’s the best and most dexterous of Helldivers as a Red, he scores the highest score on his admissions test as a gold. He is a favorite and darling of the Golds from the outset of the book, and everyone immediately looks to him as a leader when the war game simulation begins in the book’s third act. And yet… for these negatives, there’s something compelling about Darrow. He’s the kind of character I should automatically distrust and hate, but there’s something soul-searching and honest in his first person narration that just works (at least, it does for me). I also appreciated reading Darrow’s struggles as he becomes a Gold, his ruthlessness, but the conscience and consciousness of his priority to burn the Golds to the ground underlying his entire narrative.

So far as other characters are concerned, however? Especially female characters? If you’ll excuse the terrible pun, well, that’s a martian of an entirely different color. Female characters in Red Rising are secondary to Darrow’s story. They are devices for Darrow’s story development and catalysts for his character arc. The entire book is predicated on his wife, Eo’s death – Eo, who chooses to martyr herself because she thinks only Darrow can break the chains (and there’s no way Eo – clever, passionate, quick-thinking Eo – could do this herself because she’s not a HERO like Darrow). As Darrow becomes a Gold and is admitted to the prestigious Academy, he is alongside other young men and women – all who are clever, conniving and ruthless. Yet, somehow, women aren’t ever really in power here – even the ones that are, like Mustang, have no problem deferring their hard-fought positions to Darrow, because ya know, he’s a big damn HERO.

Oh, and did I mention the sexual violence and rape towards women? This is the biggest, most problematic, most shitty thing about Red Rising. At one point during the war game simulation, one of the House of Mars struggling to wrest power away from Darrow and his allies, systematically begins to rape his female slaves and followers. He takes them up to his rape tower (yes, he has a rape tower) and brutalizes these women. There’s absolutely no need for this heinous addition to the text from a story perspective, which is rage-inducing in itself, but then you add to this the fact that Darrow – and only Darrow – is the one to come to the rescue of these women (because, ya know, none of the other women in this world – even the ones with armies at their disposal – would dare because they’re not HEROES like Darrow). Obviously, this bothers me. AND, in addition to being largely superfluous to the story, the psychological justification given for the rapist is utterly nauseating and ridiculous. NO.

At least there is some discussion and challenge of the sexual violence and the question of consent in the book, especially as seen through the position of the Pinks, a class of people who serve the Golds and high ranking colors as a class of pleasure slaves, males and females of all ages. While it’s unthinkable that a fellow Gold would rape or sexually brutalize other Golds, it’s perfectly acceptable for a Gold to do so with Pinks (because Pinks are inferior creatures who live to serve, just as it’s ok to enslave and force Reds to live beneath Mars’ surface, because they are lower than dirt). Ultimately, the core theme of the book focuses on the injustice of the color hierarchy, how the Golds foist their power and reign unchallenged as God-creatures that are physically, economically, and mentally superior to the lower echelons. I like that this core thesis is challenged by Darrow’s narrative – even if it’s only Darrow who does the challenging (right now, that is).

So. Ultimately, what does this mean for Red Rising? Clearly, the book is not without it’s enormous issues that cannot be overlooked or remain undiscussed. And yet… there’s something so damn compelling about the writing and the storyline that I was thoroughly engrossed and addicted to reading and finishing the novel. And I want to read MORE. Does that make me a bad person? I hope not. I hope that by talking about the problematic elements of Red Rising, author Pierce Brown might just address these huge issues – namely the problematic portrayals of women – in books 2 and book 3.

This leaves me in a tough position: I have no idea how to rate this book because it is both amazing, yet so very flawed. I completely understand and respect why anyone would hate this book with the force of a thousand suns, but there’s something very readable about Darrow’s story and I kinda loved the book. Even though I know so many things are wrong with it.

Like I said… it’s complicated.

Notable Quotes/Parts: You can read a full excerpt online HERE.

Rating: I honestly have no idea. I want to say 8 – Excellent for the awesome parts, but by the same token it’s a 4 – Horrible for its treatment of female characters. For me personally? I still loved the book, while trying to be responsible about its big issues. So, I’ll go with a 7 – Very Good

Reading Next: Alienated by Melissa Landers

Buy the Book:

(click on the links to purchase)

barnes & noble Book Depository UK amazon_uk

Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, nook, Google Play, kobo & iBooks

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  • Ren
    March 27, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    Male writers should be barred from putting rape in their stories because they almost always do it wrong. There should literally be a chip inserted into every male author so that if they even write the word rape it’ll (mildly) electrocute them and leave them in a daze for a good two minutes.

  • Amber
    March 27, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    At the risk of publically admitting that I’m really quite clueless, would you expound more about the problems you had with the rape scenes? (I have not read the book, though it does look intriguing and I will probably pick it up.) In other words, in what way was it “done wrong” and is it possible to do a rape scene “right”?

    I guess I just am confused, because I see a lot of people complaining about this exact sort of thing, but rape does occur in real life, brutally and for no other reason than to exact revenge or gain power, and has been occurring since mankind first discovered genitalia. Is there a specific reason that rape – as opposed to other sad and horrible things that happen – shouldn’t be included in a book? Are there guidelines for how it should be included, if it’s going to be?

    This is a question I’ve had for a very long time and you seem quite knowledgeable and this book seems like the perfect time to bring it up and ask specifics so…there you go. 😳

  • Amber
    March 27, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    …and if that previous comment shouldn’t be on this site, please feel free to delete it.

  • Jana
    March 28, 2014 at 1:51 am

    I’m so, so torn on this book, because I’ve really wanted to read it ever since I started seeing blurbs about it–but as more and more reviews popped up with the words “Warning: LOTS OF RAPE” and “awful treatment of female characters,” my interest turned to apprehension. There’s so much about Red Rising that would ordinarily make this an insta-buy for me, but now I barely want to get it from the library. I might have to wait until the entire trilogy is published, to see whether the tricky female characterization (and other problems) are resolved. πŸ™ Thanks for another great and honest review!

  • Andrea K
    March 28, 2014 at 7:35 am

    @Amber – Not having read this particular book, I’ll just comment generally on things that can be problematic about rape in stories.

    1. Yes, rape most certainly happens in real life. Unlike, say, being thrown into a death match high school, rape is an event that a percentage of a book’s readership has almost certainly experienced. Including it in a book is something that should always be done with that knowledge at the forefront of your mind.

    2. Rape scenes are often described in great detail (far more detail than non-violent sexual situations). They are often seen from the viewpoint of the rapist. They often include reasons/excuses/justification for the act. They are often written in an almost titillating way. Very often the rapes serve no purpose to the plot other than to demonstrate that a character we already know is evil, really is evil. Sometimes it almost reaches the level of set decoration. There a castle, here a scaffold, and in this corner some rape.

    3. In our world, rape happens to both men and women. Particularly during war situations. Some stories build grim and violent worlds full of rape – but only against women. In these stories for some reason, imprisoned men, and youthful male protagonists travelling in the company of vicious rapists, seem immune to the real-world reality of rape, despite that reality being so commonly inflicted on the female characters.

    4. Very often the rape of a female character is used as a device to cause the male characters angst. The rape is actually all about the man.

    5. In some stories the impact of the rape (something that every person copes with differently) never happens. Someone is raped, and then it is never mentioned again.

    If, with each of these points, you remind yourself of point one, we come to the reason why rape is a problematic thing to include in stories. I say that having included a rape in one of my own stories. It’s probably the only time I’ll use rape in a story, and I’m still not sure I had sufficient justification to use it.

  • Amber
    March 28, 2014 at 8:43 am

    @Andrea –

    That was the most thorough and thought out answer I’ve ever received to that question! I usually just get huffs and screaming about how it should be obvious. :/ Thank you, this actually makes sense now.

    Would you mind if I emailed you a couple of specific questions that would be getting too off topic for this comment thread? You seem well balanced and informed, I’d like to just ask you a couple of things, if you don’t mind. My email (so you don’t have to publish yours) is amber butler 05 at gmail.

  • Thea
    March 30, 2014 at 11:12 pm

    Hi everyone, thanks for the comments! I apologize for being so late to the discussion.

    Amber – I think Andrea nails the reasons why rape can be so problematic in fiction and has hopefully answered your question! I will say that in this particular book, the rapes and sexual violence were so problematic because of the following reasons: because they were used as a device for Darrow to become a hero (and to cause him angst); because the female characters (who are as intelligent, ruthless, brave, and heroic as Darrow or any of the male characters in the text), are robbed of their agency and only Darrow is the one to speak up and save them; because it seems that only female characters are murdered, raped, or otherwise brutalized in this world (to elicit reactions from the male characters).

  • Nick
    May 6, 2014 at 6:31 am

    I wish I could take your review seriously, but since you made it apparent that you didn’t really read the book thoroughly; in the end I can’t. Go back, read the book again, and try thinking about it first before you decide to write ignorantly. I’m not going to bother explaining in detail, that’s just how bad your review was.

  • TJ
    May 21, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    I have to disagree with you on how females are treated in this book. If anything, I think its refreshing that they are almost every bit as ruthless, cruel, shrewd, strong and powerful as most men. Mustang is a perfect example, and I think you sell her short, as to ME, it seems her true motives have yet to be fully revealed, and I suspect will play more into the sequels.

    I also think you are incorrect on who ended the “rapes” by Titus. It was Mustang and her forces who stormed the Mars castle and stopped the rape tower. They beat and imprisoned Titus in the cellar of the castle, where Darrow later finds him after they force Mustang out of the castle. And it is only with the promise of justice against Titus that Mustang relents and hands back the Mars Castle which has been throughly trashed. True that it is Darrow who ultimately metes out justice for the rape crimes, but he is the main “hero” of the story, and his approach to this is central to the story and how he is viewed by the other Golds.

    As for the rape itself, I have no issue with it. As others have said, it is a sad, but real aspect of our world. It does happen, and it is among the most brutal acts that can be committed by one person against another. I think Brown employs this smartly in the story both to show the raw Darwinian nature of the Gold’s and their academy, and also as a device to help Darrow see the folly of the pure vengeful rage which leads Titus to do what he does. It presents a painful choice for Darrow in how he deals with Titus, and the his motives for the rapes, and why he must rise above it, to be better, in how he brings down Gold society.

  • Matt
    September 27, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    I’m going to play a little devils advocate and remind people that the point of this “school” was to teach extremely soft and over privileged Gold children what it means to LEAD and what it means to LOSE. They want these near grown adults to feel intense hardship they’ve never experienced, to harden them for what they will see in the real world. And as some here have said rape happens in the real world.

    Also I think Brown wanted to create a Game of Thrones gritty/brutal aura to the story so it will not be dismissed as just another YA novel where everything ends up hunky dory at the end. It’s like the Hunger games on steroids, he just took it up a notch.

    So I will agree it’s distasteful, but it’s not overdone, and I think it sets the table for how brutal the following books will be and what Darrow has to put up with. Again, I do not think this series should be dismissed with a “YA” tag on it.

  • Andrew K
    October 1, 2014 at 12:03 am

    Thank you TJ, your response was 100% on point! The rape portion of this book is told from a second hand point of view, there is only discussion of what took place. This information makes Darrow open up and allow the reader to see his true emotion and hate for the golds and his undying allegiance to his people.

  • Jake
    December 4, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    This review is absolutely ridiculous, ignorant, oblivious, and outright stupid. The rape isn’t put in for fun. It’s important. Read some of the other comments like TJ’s. I don’t feel the need to argument this point as it has already been done. The rape is distasteful because IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE distasteful. That is the message the author wants to send. He wants to send a message of brutality. This illustrates the novel as a whole very well. The rape scenes were extremely important, and if you think they weren’t, you shouldn’t review books. Try again.

  • Thinker
    January 15, 2015 at 6:03 am

    Unless I am reading a different book, the rape you so fixate on is only fleetingly mentioned. Because of the severe criticism in your review I thought there’d be pages and pages of gore. There is hardly any mention of what happened in that tower, and I agree with other commentators that it had it’s place and reason.

    Apart from that I really did not like this book. It is simplistic, predictable, boring and it is just another story out there running along the same old worn out tracks – Hunger Games, The Matrix, Ender’s Game – you name it, it has “inspired” the author to the extent of him lifting entire concepts from other works of fiction.

  • Paul Weimer
    January 15, 2015 at 8:37 am

    I respect and support Thea’s reaction to the use of sexual violence and rape in this book. I note that the review is largely positive but this is an issue that she understandably has problems with.

    Rape is used all too casually used in fiction, especially fantasy fiction. Its overused.

  • Guest
    January 30, 2015 at 2:56 am

    I’ve finished reading the book and rape was not a big issue. There were many scenes and situations of rape. When one of the women did not want punishment for the male, others where they wanted him dead. And I believe there were many female characters who wanted to kill the assaulters such as mustang. The book review is a bit flawed but how can one remember all of the details in the book am I right? Nonetheless you do the book justice and I love that you touched upon Darrow’s own narration and thoughts as the story progressed.

  • Anonymous
    February 22, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    I think the reviewer completely understates Mustang’s importance and value in the story. She is her own person and does what she believes in. If she does not agree with Darrow she argues, she does not follow him blindly. She follows him because they have similar goals. She saves him because she thinks he can help her realize those goals. She does not go along with him because he’s a “hero”. After now reading the second book in the series I think this becomes even more obvious.

    I do agree that Darrow is an incredible first person narrator to the story. His thoughts and reasoning are so compelling that he draws you completely into the universe and story.

  • Fee
    September 25, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    @Paul Weimer: thank you for not telling a female blogger how wrong she is to find fault with sexual violence in a story. I appreciate it.

  • Book Review: Morning Star by Pierce Brown | Justworthsharing
    March 3, 2016 at 1:37 am

    […] No exaggeration. The first two novels in this epic trilogy found homes on my top 10 lists of 2014 (Red Rising) and 2015 (Golden Son) and, given the dramatic cliffhanger ending of Golden Son, I was obsessively […]

  • Moriah
    April 9, 2016 at 6:55 pm

    YES! This was exactly my thought as I read this review!

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