Here there be spoilers. (For those that want to enjoy the novel without spoilers, this book as a gerfunkle rating of two. Sadly I would definitely categorize this as a salt-and-pepper case – the author uses gerfunkle liberally, even if he doesn’t necessarily go into detail.)
I wasn’t really feeling this one, and I’m not 100% sure why.
The worldbuilding was okay. I wasn’t a fan of the color-system-society. I found it to be rather simplistic. ‘The pinks are for pleasure, the reds are for labor, the golds are the gods.’ I do enjoy ancient Rome, and while for the first book I do get the impression the author smashed all its facets flat, I appreciate trying to use something historical when writing one’s fiction. I just maybe would have done more research myself, if I was going to use the framework in such a direct way.
Overall, though, I can’t say there’s much about this book that stands out to me. The color system made me think of Divergent (which I’ve never read, but I saw one of the movies at some point.) The concept of the Gold’s ‘training ground’ was essentially the Hunger Games. Now, I’m the first person to point out that literature is derivative – it’s not a bad thing to explore similar themes and take them in a different direction. Problem was, Red Rising didn’t really run with any of those themes. Not in a way that felt fresh or new.
I give the worldbuilding a 3 out of 5 stars. Not great, not terrible.
The characters are really what lost me.
Darrow strikes me as a cardboard cutout everyman. He loses his wife (and we’ll get to her later) and goes on a revenge crusade. That in and of itself wouldn’t kill him for me – we use familiar ideas precisely because they’re familiar. It’s like a diving board. You all start from the same place, but there are a million different ways you can enter the water.
Darrow’s a straight-backed, rigid-limbed belly-flop. He’s painfully flat. He mourns his dead wife (whose death didn’t give me any kind of emotional catharsis.) He rages against the injustice of a system so evil it feels like a caricature. It just really felt like Pierce Brown took the outline for this kind of character and didn’t add anything to it. He did nothing to sincerely make it is own, and because of that lack, I just didn’t care about Darrow. I cared less and less about him as the story progressed. His mourning of Eo felt plastic. His rage felt repetitive.
The other characters in the book suffer similarly. I will say I did like Sevro, but even he was only an inch above baseline. His society values perfection, and he doesn’t look perfect, so he’s been ostracized. That’s made him a fighter. That said, I never understood why Sevro felt such gung-ho loyalty to Darrow. Even right up to hiding the fact that he was a Red, or so we’re led to believe. I need a reason why a character would be willing to die for another, and for me, that never came through.
Mustang can be summed up by the fact that she’s named after a horse. As a female character she wasn’t throw-the-book-at-a-wall bad, but she really didn’t jive with me either. I also found the bit about her singing Eo’s song a touch too convenient. Also, if they’re constantly being watched by cameras, shouldn’t she be worried about singing a rebel’s song? A song apparently so controversial it calls for immediate execution?
Just a thought.
Finally, we have Eo. We all knew Eo was going to die. The ‘beautiful wife that lights up a room’ thing is basically like casting Sean Bean in a movie. The question isn’t if, it’s when and how.
I didn’t give a damn about Eo dying. The way she died was certainly very graphic and I think anyone would feel a reflexive empathy for a sixteen year old being strangled by her husband grabbing her legs (to be fair to Brown, I did like that imagery.) But once the shock has cleared, you’re left only with the memory of her character. She was a woman who chose to die as a symbol in front of her husband and family. She was a woman whose one conversation was to belittle Darrow, to tell him that the hardships he suffered because of his father’s choices were meaningless. To tell him he was a coward, because he was afraid of people who could take everything from him.
And honestly? That kind of made her an asshole.
So by the fifteenth time Darrow pines for Eo, I was over it. I wasn’t sympathetic. I was irritated. She was a badly done fridge. To really pull my heartstrings, you need to put in more effort.
Characterization is gonna be a 1 out of 5 stars for me guys. Hate to say it.
Finally, we have the plot. I’ll give it that it’s fast-paced, which is always nice. There’s something happening at every turn, so Brown does show a good feel for pacing. It really picks up when you get to the school and start realizing how oppressed the Golds are along with everyone else (although it does bring up the question: if you’re constantly ostracizing your military, how has your society not crumbled? Google what caused Rome to fail.) We did have some interesting interactions between characters – the whole arc with Darrow and Cassius, for example. And to the author’s credit, I did feel a little something when Pax died. His death was easy to see coming too, but at least by that time he’d built up the character enough to make it more impactful.
I have to say though I found the whole ending hilariously bad. The fact that Darrow was gary stu’ing his happy little butt through most of the book I tolerated, but when he managed to just break into Olympus and take the place over with his ragtag group of teenagers, I laughed aloud. That was the moment he clearly became a power fantasy, which is okay, but I don’t really have an interest in that particular kind of story.
I’ll give the plot a 3/5 stars. The pacing is really what bumped it up there.
Finally, we get to our gerfunkle rating.
I considered making this three gerfunkles. While there is never a completely explicit gerfunkle scene in and of itself, Brown has no issue whatsoever throwing it everywhere. He uses it any time he wants things to ‘get dark.’ He uses it with great liberty, to the point that I couldn’t really tell you which pages to avoid it getting brought up. And here’s the thing:
If it weren’t for his constant use/mention of gerfunkle, this would have been marketed as a Y/A novel.
I’m not saying that to piss on Y/A novels. I have many Y/A authors that I adore. (Francis Hardinge, call me.) I just mean that many of his themes, his overall worldbuilding, and even his cast of characters – 16-18 range – would typically find themselves at home in that market. I sincerely wonder if he didn’t just use gerfunkle in order to avoid that, instead of maybe tossing in some more facets here and there or aging up his characters somehow.
And if that’s the case, that’s pretty cheap.
Two gerfunkles on this one. If you’re really sensitive to the topic, I honestly wouldn’t recommend this book. I don’t think it’s worth the payout.
Overall, this book could have used another couple of drafts. It wasn’t bad, it just needed a little more something.