At different points in the narrative, Pierce Brown’s dizzyingly good debut novel evokes The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and Ender’s Game, but to write it off as merely derivative would be lazy. Sure, Brown has culled familiar elements — dystopian rituals, personality-based stratification, rebellious unrest, and plenty of flashy tech — but he’s woven the worn threads into a wholly fresh revenge tale that will send your imagination into hyperdrive.
Sixteen-year-old Darrow is a Red, the lowest of a color-coded caste hierarchy, and he toils deep within a colony on Mars. After the highborn Golds execute his idealistic wife, Darrow joins a group of revolutionaries — ”empire-breakers, not terrorists” — who want to use him to infiltrate the Golds by enlisting him in the Institute, a prestigious school for society’s elite.
Though the novel gets off to a clunky start, the pages begin to fly as soon as Darrow undergoes his class-hopping transformation. Brown writes with cinematic grandeur, cleverly fusing Roman mythology with science fiction and pacing his action scenes for a slow-burn build to a hold-your-breath final act. Darrow, edgy but immensely likable, is an easy guy to root for, and there’s a certain thrill in guessing the loyalties of the strikingly rendered heroes and villains who parade through his mission. Brown’s best move is eschewing some of the more tired tropes of dystopian YA (read: no horrific love triangle), instead creating disarmingly real friendships and high-stakes rivalries. Red Rising is the first in a trilogy, luckily for us. In the galaxy of YA phenomena, it has everything it needs to become meteoric. A-