Darrow is a Helldiver, one of a thousand men and women who live in the vast caves beneath the surface of Mars, generations of people who spend 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. That Mars has been habitable – and inhabited – for generations, by a class of people calling themselves the Golds. A class of people who look down at Darrow and his fellows as slave labour, to be exploited and worked to death without a second thought.
Until the day Darrow, with the help of a mysterious group of rebels, 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
Red Rising is an absolutely intense read of a book. Set at least 5 centuries into the future when humans are colonizing other planets, the story is about a Society built to resemble Roman empires – a system of hierarchy built on physical prowess. The protagonist, Darrow, is a Red, the lowest of the pyramid of power, and doesn’t know that the Golds (the apex) have been keeping them as slaves rather than as pioneers to inhabit new planets. When his wife martyrs herself (they married really young) he sees no reason to live other than to bring the Society down. So, he disguises himself and infiltrates them so as to topple the empire from within. But first he has to pass the Institute so that he can integrate himself into the highest positions of the society. But the Institute itself is a battleground for the Golds, to teach them what is means to hold, wield and contain power and Darrow is an eager pupil.
The world-building for the series is well-constructed, with attention given to how the system would work. It doesn’t rely simply on the Golds thinking themselves above the others – they know they can be toppled, they just learn how to keep hold on that power. The younger ones of the Golds, though, have been brought up in luxury and the older ones hold them to a system of power on merit – hence the Institute. Darrow, at first, sees how as a Red he was not to their level; he is intimidated by their superiority. The systemic hierarchy works because they are genetically bred that way. Darrow learning how to make his new status as a Gold work in his favor, how to balance between taking revenge and planning for his path – that was well-written. I look forward to seeing how his duality as a Gold in body but Red in heart would affect his psyche.
This all was good, but what I felt the author didn’t pay attention to was the dynamics of gender equality; I find it a bit unbelievable that in a society where even the women are warriors like the men and are prime physical specimens, the society is still quite patriarchal. Like, I would expect more gender equality in the future! Also, I found that the women characters in the novel are mostly superfluous, except for Eo (who gets herself killed pretty early so that he can get motivated) and Mustang (who yields power to him, despite being a better leader? Also, her father doesn’t see her as equal to her brother?) but then they are also kind of pushed aside for our protagonist. I really like Mustang and would love to see her have a more important position, story-wise, in future books.