I'm making time for this book though!!
Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations.
Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.
But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.
Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity's overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society's ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies... even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.
As usual, there'll be spoilers throughout. It's hard to avoid them and explain emotions and why I had them. You have been warned!
Many dystopians can launch you headfirst into a world and you feel like you're drowning for the first 25%. Fortunately, Red Rising is not a culprit of this. We're dropped into a very simple setting. A group of people called Reds live underground on Mars and mine an element that'll help terraform the planets/moons of the solar system.
Basic cave setting that we can understand, they're held in an impoverished state so there's no crazy tech to get use to. There is this annoying trend throughout the book to give every "new" invented thing a name that looks like clawDrill. I do not know why it was so important to mash two words together and capitalize the second "word" in the word. Annoying. Just call it a Clawdrill! Or a Claw Drill. Or a claw drill. The mid word cap thing... no, just no.
Darrow is part of a mining unit and is the lead driller(Helldiver). A risky job but one you can tell he enjoys to a degree. The immersion into this world with sensory details is phenomenal. Though a bit gross at times.
Darrow and his team are trying to earn an award given to the month's best mining sector. As long as anyone can remember it's gone to the Gamma's, but this time Darrow takes a risk that sends his score to the top. The award means extra rations and such for his sector, but we all know something smells. Right? And it's not the nasty diving suits!
As everyone is celebrating, I'm watching the scene unfold going, oh boy, I know where this is going. Yeeeep, you know, right? Because clearly this is a rigged system!!! The award goes to the Gamma's again. Hopes dashed. I mean, I saw it coming but I still was wanting to yell at the leaders of this scam.
If I was an evil tyrant that was enslaving a bazillion colonies of underground workers, I wouldn't be rigging this award. Seriously, the minute they figure out it's rigged there's no incentive for them to keep doing their best work to win it. Why? There's no point! Common sense would say that if it's a legitimate goal people will be so distracted trying to earn it that they may forget their slaves and you're holding their chain.
It is kind of scary when you realize you could dominate the galaxy more efficiently. What I DID really like is that latter Darrow points out the exact same freaking thing. So this wasn't an oops on the author's part. He really did make a flawed governing body and a person smart enough to know they can work it better, if they had wanted. Hmm, Darrow and I might need to be committed together.
Darrow's moment of joy and hope is crushed, but his wife decides to cheer him up. She takes him to the upper level that has been partially terraformed(still underground). They're not on the surface as far as I could tell but they're in an area with trees and grass that I guess belongs to the Greys who are the enforcement peoples in this world.
On their way back, they get caught.
Now... Here's what I don't freaking get!!! HOW DID THEY KNOW?! The sneak away during a party, into a factory, and then go to an air vent that is hidden, climb up it and garden! How the heck did the Greys know that vent was accessible and that these two went in it? I mean, they're sitting right there waiting for them when they get back.
AND THEY DON'T EXPLAIN! We never find out how they knew!! Did someone nark? Or did they somehow just smell their trail into the vent. I mean, really, it makes no sense.
The punishment is severe, of course. I believe it was 45 lashes or some crazy number. Darrow is treated to the whip first and that's the thing about this book, it's not pleasant. This book is not shy about details and language. The language is course, there's a lot of swearing or just nasty talk. We get to have all the bloody, nasty details. It really shows what kind of place this is. A place that's lost its soul in a lot of ways.
Next is his wife, Eo, only she realizes that some head honcho--Mr. ArchGovernor--is presiding over the mess. Now Eo wants Darrow to fight back. She wants them to stand up and protest their slavery. Darrow wants to keep his head down and just get through life. Eo has a chance now. A chance to make her voice heard, to push Darrow.
This is our Wolverine moment!
Eo does something she knows will mean instant death and sure enough. She's immediately sentenced to hang. Mars is a sick place and the gravity is less than our own. So hanging isn't enough to kill someone. At least it won't snap their neck. The drop doesn't kill them and it'd be a slow and painful death. So they allow the loved ones to run under and pull their legs to finish them off.
There's not really words or memes even for these portions of the books. I mean, good grief!!! In the end, no matter how you see the reason, it's Darrow who kills his wife. He pulls her leg and feels the snap. I can't imagine the nightmares that poor guy had.
But now we have our martyr and she's lit a fire in a beast that would've happily stayed dormant if left alone. Events follow that lead Darrow to the group of Rebels called the Sons of Ares. They have a plan. They're going to give Wolverine claws.
You know how that worked... Only Darrow's not being played by the Sons or Ares so he doesn't turn on them. He does however go through a process that takes months but sounds possibly even more painful than Wolverine's short stint in the tank. It's something you'd only go through if you had lost someone and were angry enough to handle the pain.
Darrow goes through all the surgeries and months of recovery. Then he's given enhancers to help him memorize information quickly and taught how to interact in the upper society. Because yep, among other things, the Sons of Ares have revealed to him that his life is a lie.
The miners aren't harvesting for a terraforming process to rescue the poor souls of Earth. No, it's been 500 freaking years since people moved to Mars. Mars is already terraformed. People already are living there and all around the system. They just didn't want to give up their slaves.
Darrow realizes his whole life is a fraud and the point of the surgeries and so on are so he can infiltrate the top of the top. In a color schemed world, the Reds like him are on the bottom and the Golds are on the top. But even the Golds have levels within their system.
Darrow is shooting to be the top rank of Golds. A person with enough power to help bring down the system from the inside. It's a long term goal. They're not going to get this done quickly and it's not going to happen in the first book. It's not even going to shake up the system in the first book. They're playing it smart and doing it slow.
Darrow gets into the elite school where only the top 2% of Golds enter. He's then sorted into one of 12 houses that each pick 100 students.
From here on out. We're in Hunger Games world. I mean, these people are looking to win sponsors who'll back all their dreams to greatness after "school" lets out.
Not 12 districts, but 12 houses. And the first thing that happens is . . . .they're fed a lavish feast and shown to a nice room. Darrow's going, I got this!
Then crap hits the fan. Darrow's dragged out of bed in the middle of the night, stripped, and thrown into a room. A man walks in and throws a ring in the center of the room and says, "Last person living gets the ring and gets to walk out. We only have room for one of you." Yep, there's another person across the room from Darrow.
Darrow knows this guy doesn't stand a chance. The people who threw them in together had to know. Thing is, Darrow doesn't hate this guy. He's trying to hate all Golds but it's hard when they're attached to names and faces and those people are hard to hate.
This is a no win situation. I saw a few reviewers call Darrow a Gary Stu because he's perfect and people, he's not. In this situation for example you can't be perfect. You either let yourself be killed and lose the chance to free your people, or you murder an innocent teen who's never done anything to you.
LIKE WHAT KIND OF CHOICE IS THAT?!
It's no choice. You lose no matter what. But this is Darrow's story so despite holding out hope that he'll find a way to somehow just injure this guy and still make the cut... yeah, it's gruesome.
As he's walking out of the room later, he's thinking about the whole thing. It's downright creepy how accurately he figures out why this choice is there. Every school gets 100 kids. Half of them die that first night. It weeds out the weakest and changes the strongest. Starts them on a path that leads to a coldness that would then let them be okay with their children doing the same.
Now with the strongest 50 in each house remaining, the "teacher" bails and tells them good luck. You're supposed to avoid killing people, but it's not strictly forbidden. You're meant to take over and rule this land the schools reside on.
Everyone's just standing in their schools. You don't know where the castles are at or whose is whose. You don't know what they have for resources or weaknesses, you don't know what they're planning.
But first Darrow had to deal with strife in his own castle. You have to earn the leadership rank, so until then you either go leaderless or elect a temporary leader. With everyone wanting to stand out, that doesn't go so well. Four factions break of from House Mars and things get uglier.
The first faction belongs to Titus. Titus is the big hulking brute that actually enjoys the sick things that are going on. He manages to amass the largest group out of House Mars despite his inability to provide basic necessities like food and fire.
The second is Antonia's. She's the sneaky, backstabbing one that in some ways you have to watch out for the most. She'll take any opportunity to advance.
Next is Darrow and Cassius's group. The two team up to co-lead their faction. Part of Darrow likes Cassius and respects him. But he's also hiding a secret from Cassius that could change everything. Cassius is a loaded gun with no safety. He could go off at any time.
The fourth faction isn't so much a group as a one man show. Sevro was supposed to die in the slaughter, but he overcame the odds to beat whoever they put with him. He's crazy, he's strange, he's abrasive. He slithers off into the night and though he's going solo, he seems to be doing better than anyone else. He's the smart, slinky, sly one.
There is sooo many ups and downs over the course of the book. Darrow is trying to reunite his house but things will go right, then wrong. He makes mistakes, and they land him in bad spots. He's smart though. His tactics are different and he's not afraid to try something crazy. His band may be small, but when he wins loyalty he really wins it.
Do not get attached to people because wow do they like to die and have you shaking the book.
The last half of the book unfolds into a series of events that happen during this epic war. The paths Darrow has to take surprised me constantly. I kept thinking things would go one way and they'd go another. He makes choices no one's ever made and it shakes up how the system works. He defies the rules, refuses to be beaten, and chooses to use something more powerful than slaves to accomplish his goal.
This book had me angry, sad, frustrated, disgusted, and angry some more. I mostly loved the people around Darrow. Roque the sage one who seemed to see more than anyone else. Sevro who was the underdog and fiercely loyal. Pax who was such a staunch character that by the end he wasn't playing for himself, or for what he could earn, he was committed to Darrow and willing to do whatever it took to see that he succeeded.
Yes, this book is rough. The descriptions, the language, the events. Good people die, people we like. But it is very good. I had a few quibbles with the world setup such as withheld information. Like Eo apparently has a second secret she means to tell Darrow but doesn't before her death and her sister is told something that she refuses to share with him afterwards.
I'm pretty sure I know what it is. Only one secret could be important enough to include in the book and make Eo's death all the more horrifying. But I didn't think it made sense to be dropped in there and then never really returned to. Also it makes Eo's sacrifice one I can't respect as much. If I'm right, it'll change the way I look at her decision to martyr herself completely.
I gave this book 4 stars and darn it but it kept me up until 2 in the morning. A gruesome, dark, gritty book but one that draws you in with its depth and realism. You feel like you're there, like this place is real. The stakes and people matter.