For the last several years I’ve been meaning to read this book. It originally entered my radar years ago when it was the book-of-the-month for one of the book clubs I’m a part of. At the time I was busy so I didn’t read it, but I bought it anyway. Come this month, I finally had a slot in my schedule and I’m happy to say I enjoyed this book.
Now I’ll be honest, going into this I had low expectations. Everything I’d heard suggested that this would be some sort of ‘Hunger Games’ rip-off. I think those low expectations helped me enjoy this story more. I came in expecting very little, and time and again this book exceeded my expectations. The moral of the story is to go into every book expecting it to be bad, so you’re always pleasantly surprised.
Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing.
To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.
I am unfamiliar with the battle royale subgenre, beyond what I’ve seen in a few old movies like Hunger Games. I am willing to read YA books, but I don’t naturally seek them out. I am not in the target audience for YA books either. Similarly, I don’t regularly read SciFI, even soft SciFi like this.
READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR
This book made me feel largely positive emotions. For example, I felt excited and energized when events turned Darrow’s way, and I had my heart in my mouth when things didn’t. This book successfully engaged my suspension of disbelief. However this book also made me feel frustration in a bad way occasionally- specifically at the beginning of the ‘battle royale’ segment when it seemed like the interesting inter-class plotline was put on hold. I personally did not find the battle royale to be interesting, so when it began, I became disengaged from the plot.
Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (B)
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
This book’s concept was: “The meek, teenager slave Darrow is enraged when his wife is killed. He joins a freedom fighting movement, and goes under cover in the ruling class in order to gain rank and eventually overthrow the government. While under cover, he goes to ‘evil despot’ school, where he and his classmates LARP medieval warfare, where the surviving Hogwarts House gets high-ranking promotions. While LARPing, it’s kill-or-be-killed (and maybe get cannibalized)… until Darrow teams up with a nice girl and together they override the rules of the game and lead an army in rebellion of the corrupt system.”
(Note: the Hogwarts Houses are rival factions which function similarly to the Houses in the Harry Potter series, which can win awards based upon a point system.)
The book’s execution was largely excellent… but I had a few problems.
First, this was a four act book. I found Act 3 of the four to be boring.
Second, this book was told in first person, present tense. I have a small problem with first person. I have a small problem with present tense. Why? Both of these are rare storytelling conventions. Combined together, I had trouble getting into this story at the very beginning. Similarly, at regular intervals during Acts 3 and 4 I kept getting bumped out of the story because of the present tense, because I had no idea how much time was passing. The story was very stream-of-consciousness, and while that narrative largely worked, sometimes it didn’t.
Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (A-)
CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:
I liked the characters in this book overall. All the primary characters had distinct personalities, which isn’t something you can always say for every Fantasy book.
I will throw out a nitpick I have said in many of my various book reviews, that the aristocrats in this book seem to be evil for the sake of being evil. The aristocracy is usually motivated solely by wealth, prestige and a desire to keep the peasants in their place. Usually I find this to be lazy characterization. (As other examples, I had this problem with The Book of the Ancestor and The Rage of Dragons/The Fires of Vengeance.) Why do I find this to be lazy characterization? Because I could read this exact same characterization if I switch to reading another book with antagonistic nobility. When I read a book I like unique, fun villains. If the villains in any one book are exactly the same as those in another, I get bored.
At moments during ‘Red Rising,’ I felt that some of the aristocratic asshole characters drifted into such lazy characterization.
Balancing this nitpick was my eventual realization that the aristocrats are all in a death-cult. The golds willingly send their children off to murder-school, even knowing the dangers. Further, they keep their fertility rate down/actively cull the ‘weak’ for the sake of keeping their bloodlines ‘pure.’ The golds aren’t a vanilla evil aristocratic faction; no, they are their own brand of crazy, and I appreciate that the author took the time needed to flesh that crazy out.
Darrow: I liked him as a protagonist. He is basically who Ender Wiggan would be if Ender took super-steroids and became an Ubermensch. After his wife’s death, he’s solely motivated by a desire for revenge against the repressive system which killed her. In terms of having his own personality, he was fairly personality-lite. He had rage to him, the occasional moment of cunning, but also a surprising amount of mercy. I was surprised with how willingly he forged alliances and worked with the golds in the battle royale. I thought he would have gone on a killing spree against the golds given how high his ‘rage’ was supposed to be, but instead he kept a cool head and became a leader.
Eo: I did not like Darrow’s wife Eo. She got barely any characterization, besides her desire for freedom. That desire, while understandable, was not enough to flesh her out. Her fridging at the start of this book set off Darrow’s journey. Further, I actively despised her after she tried peer pressuring Darrow into picking up the police’s dropped stun baton and fighting back against the police. She was actively peer pressuring Darrow to commit suicide by cop, which is detestable on her part. I wonder if it was the author’s desire to make Eo seem like an abusive partner, or if that was accidental.
I enjoyed Cassius as a protagonist/antagonist. He seemed very ‘real’ to me, insofar as any fantasy character can be real. Same goes for the Jackal and Apollo and Nero. They all seem like the sort of filth who would naturally rise to the top of a scummy society like the golds.
I enjoyed Mustang, Pax, Sevro, Titus and Tactus. For all their flaws, they were unique characters who the author clearly presented. I just finished reading a couple other books, and some of the side characters in them were bland. Not here with these guys and gal.
I could keep going, but you get the point. The characters in this book are very good.
Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (A-)
PACING AND STRUCTURE
This book is told in the 4 act format, otherwise known as kishotenketsu. Usually I’d point you to a link on my blog explaining the 4 act format, but I can’t because I don’t have such a blogpost yet. I’ll write such a post after I find and read another two or three books told in this style.
What is kishotenketsu? Speaking to a Western audience, the 4 act format is a storytelling style which is an adaptation of the 3 act format. In the 3 act format, you have 3 stages: the Status Quo, the disruption to the status quo, and resuming the status quo. In the 4 act format, you have 4 stages: the status quo, the elaboration of the status quo, the disruption to the status quo, and resuming the status quo.
Act 2 in the 4 act format is the main difference; in that act the themes, characters and pre-existing conflicts present in Act 1 are fleshed out and further elaborated. As a result, 4 act books can feel slower paced than 3 act books. These books can have two inciting incidents: the first, small one between acts 1 and 2, and the second major one is between 2 and 3.
Lets go back to ‘Red Rising.’
Act 1: Status Quo
- This act exists in two halves: before, and after the laurel. Before the laurel, Darrow exists in a state of naivete towards the Society, believing the golds are fair. After the laurel is handed out unjustly, he loses his innocence. This 2 half structure is mirrored later in the novel.
- This act ends when Darrow and Eo are sentenced to death unjustly. Eo dies, but Darrow survives. This is the minor Inciting Incident which launches Darrow’s personal plot arc.
Act 2: Elaboration upon the Status Quo
- Darrow’s no longer naive about the evils of the Society, but he still isn’t ready to go on his adventure. He leaves his seclusion of Lambda station, and enters the broader Society as a whole.
- Darrow is trained by the Sons of Ares, and his body is modified to become a supersoldier. (This was my favorite sequence in the story.)
- Darrow passes the tests to enter the Institute (aka murder school).
- In murder school, he’s makes friends… and is forced to murder one of his friends. He passes the test of being a gold; he’s capable of heartless actions.
- This act ends with the Inciting Incident of Darrow being sent to the battle royale.
Act 3: The Disruption to the Status Quo
- The medieval LARPing battle royale begins. Stuff happens.
- The act ends when 2 things happen: first, Darrow learns that the battle royale is staged so another contestant wins unjustly (mirroring the laurel in act 1), and second, Darrow is usurped by a former friend, nearly killed, and exiled.
Act 4: Resuming the Status Quo
- In exile, Darrow is forced to start from scratch. he makes friends with Mustang (who’s from a rival Hogwarts House), and together they form a trans-Hogwarts House nation, and start LARPing together. Through the Power of Friendship, they win the tournament and fall in love.
I ascribe to the notion that each act ends when the protagonist (or an antagonist) makes a choice which cannot be unmade. Act 1 ends when Eo chooses to sacrifice herself. Act 2 ends when Darrow murders Justinian. Act 3 ends when Cassius attempts to murder Darrow in revenge for Justin’s death. Act 4 begins ending when Darrow makes the choice to fight back against the proctors and invade Olympus.
Honestly, this book has very good structure. It has clear, definable stages which make it very easy to understand what’s going on, and what’s changing.
And then… pacing. I thought this book was at it’s most enthralling when the inter-caste conflicts were brought to the forefront. Act 3 did not have that inter-caste conflict in the forefront. As a result, I thought that act 3 was dull.
For me at least, I did not re-engage with this book until Fitchner gave Darrow the revelation that the proctors were ‘holding the laurel’ for the Jackal, and that Darrow was guaranteed to lose, just as how Lambda lost the laurel. In other words, when the book was at it’s most ‘battle royale’ I got bored. I only started caring again after it was revealed that the battle royale was really just a microcosm of the Society’s flaws as a whole.
Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (B+)
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
Truth told, this book’s plot was the aspect about it I enjoyed least of all. As I’ve stated, the Act 3/Act 4 battle royale was my least favorite part of this novel. While I eventually had fun reading the royale, I’d have rather if the author used another plot.
The book’s stakes were very good. Because the author began the story at the very lowest level of the Society’s slaves, we understand the banal tragedy of everyday life for those oppressed by the golds. Darrow’s failure means that that banal tragedy gets to continue.
The book’s tension was also very good. Starting the book with Eo’s death meant that from the very beginning we knew we were playing with life and death. Same with the Passage, when Darrow was forced to kill Justin, same with the battle royale itself when people kept getting killed. Prominent characters can and were regularly killed, meaning that the tension about whether Darrow would survive was up in the air. I felt that the tension was good as a result.
On a similar note, the protagonists had to constantly worry about getting injured and dying. They had to scrounge around for medicine, making bargains with the test proctors, just to survive. I liked this. There was real risk with all the characters in the battle royale being superhuman juggernauts that they can just shrug off attacks and recover. By having people get injured and needing medicine, the author cut off that angle of potential lost tension.
Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (B)
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
The author chose to write this as a first person, present tense story which, as I said, was a bit of a trip to read sometimes. At times it was a difficult read, but overall I appreciated what the author was trying to do. The author wanted to bring the reader into Darrow’s headspace, making the reader feel every emotion Darrow feels. This didn’t always work; as I said, I didn’t always believe that Darrow would cooperate instantly with the other golds in the royale. When such moments happened, my suspension of disbelief kicked me out of the text. But overall, it worked.
I enjoyed the author’s voice. I liked that the narrator broke out into song. I listened to the audiobook, and the singing worked. I don’t know how it would do in a text version, but in the audio format it worked well. Similarly, I liked the texture of the author’s words. The narrative had beautiful prose. It was clear and simple language, but had a certain smirking fluency to it which I enjoyed reading.
This book took it’s themes of survival of the fittest, lying and corruption and knocked them out of the park. The Society pretends that the golds are on top because of ‘Survival of the Fittest’ gives them the moral right to rule, but really the corruption of the system destroys that argument. The Society and the golds are a bunch of hypocrites who stand for nothing. I liked that the author did such a good takedown of them and everything they stand for.
I give the Authorial Voice: (B)
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
I liked this book’s worldbuilding. When Darrow went under the knife and was sculpted into a gold, I was fascinated. Mea culpa, I have a degree in biotech. The way the author did the hard work of describing the science and surgery of the sculpting really drew me into the text… but I’m probably fairly unique in this way. Not everyone has a degree in biotech and would find this fascinating.
I liked the whole Greek/Roman theming of this book. Mea culpa, for the last year I’ve been doing research into the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Roman Empire just for fun. Hearing about ‘Cassius,’ ‘Augustus’ and the rest was very fun.
Finally, I’ll mention one last thing. I’ve been doing research into this setting, and I noticed something. The golds all have the naming scheme of (John) au (Doe). The Blues have the naming scheme of (John) xe (Doe). And on and on it goes for the rest of the castes. Here’s the thing: Au is the symbol for gold on the periodic table. Xe is the periodic name for xenon, which is blue. And on and on it goes. The author had fun worldbuilding this.
I give the Setting: (A+)
The audiobook was narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds. He did a good job using different accents for different castes of people. The Red slave caste used ‘lowborn’ accents, while the golds used fancier accents. When Darrow had to go between low and high cultures, he code switched and used different accents. I’ll admit it was a bit of a lark having an Irish accent for all these Roman names, but I very much so enjoyed it.
I give the Audiobook: (A-)
- I initially didn’t care for this book’s first person, present tense storytelling. I think I would have had an easier time with it if the author had done either first person/past tense, or third person/present tense. Both put together was a bit much.
- I didn’t like Act 3 because the themes of inter-caste conflict weren’t in the forefront in that act. This book’s best aspect was it’s inter-caste conflict. Therefore the lesson is to have you main plot/theme be present in every section of your story.
- Eo’s death is an example of ‘fridging’ done right. Fridging is when an author kills a minor side character (usually a woman) to provide motive for the protagonist. Fridging is bad because it usually victimizes a woman with very little agency. In this case, Eo had A LOT of agency in her death. She chose to die. Because of her choice, it’s not fridging.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?
- 16+, with adult overlap
- This is a Sci-Fi story, but with medieval fantasy elements.
- People who are in the mood for a fairly grim Dystopian setting, where lots of people die.
- Space Roman vibes, with a freedom from slavery plot arc
- A battle royale, with Roman Gladiator vibes.
This is a good book, with depth and nuance. I particularly enjoyed the characters.
Literary Rating: Great – (On a scale of Perfect, Great, Good, Fun but Flawed, Not Recommended)
Enjoyment Rating: 4.5 OUT OF 5 STARS (Enjoyment means two things: how much fun did I have reading this book? And how much did this book make me think about real world issues?)
Genres/Tagwords: SciFi, YA, Battle Royale
- Ender’s Game (SciFi warfare starring a boy genius in a school setting, who wins by making friends)
- Hunger Games (Battle Royale)
- Mistborn (Escaping Slavery by joining the aristocracy)
- Codex Alera (YA Roman Military Fantasy)
Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:
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