Some seven hundred years or more in the future, the human race has colonized the galaxy, but has divided itself into "colors," castes which determine everybody's job and place in society. Darrow is a Red, the lowest of the colors. Although some High Reds serve the other colors while working among them, he is a low Red, digging below the surface of Mars, unaware even that the planet is already habitable and that others are enjoying the fruits of his labor. Then his wife, Eo, is killed, and Darrow is recruited for a mission to infiltrate the Golds, the highest ranking color.
I had trouble getting a read on the audience for this book. Darrow is sixteen when it begins, but he has been married for several years, so his life experience makes him more of an adult than a teen, the same way that the heroines of fantasy novels with psuedomedieval settings are often teenagers by today's standards but functioning as adults in their world in a way that don't exactly make them YA books. I've seen it compared to The Hunger Games, for the obvious reason that both are dystopias featuring arena combat, but a Suvudu blog post from August 7th listed books of social science fiction to read while waiting for Red Rising that included all of the classic dystopias from 1984 through The Handmaid's Tale, and while I enjoyed most of those books as a teenager, nobody would say that any of them are YA books. On the other hand, while the book is brutal, much of it lacks the philosophical depth that I would expect from an adult book.
Darrow, having undergone a long and excruciatingly thoroughly described process to be able to pass for a Gold, makes it into The Institute, in which the students are drafted into twelve houses, each represented by an Olympian god, which fight until one has conquered all the others. It seemed to me that it took rather a long time for Darrow to come around to the conclusion that it would be more effective to win supporters and make alliances rather than attempting to gain power through brutality. There's also rather a lot of rape in the book, most of it as a weapon of war. Although Darrow eventually attains a position in which he can punish rapists within his House, it had been going on as an apparently normal part of the process at the Institute regularly before then, with one member of a faction of the house having to tell another (referring to the women captured by the leader of another faction) "what if they were our girls?" as if the fact that they are human isn't self evident reason that stopping a serial rapist shouldn't be the first order of business. There's also very little discussion of the Pinks, a color which seems to consist primarily of sex slaves. Adding in the fact that there are only two significant female characters in the book, one of whom dies well before we meet the other, and there is an awful lot of sexual subjugation of women and comparatively little evidence of women with power and agency of their own.
There is a reasonable adventure story here, but so far the psychology is lacking and it has a serious case of Smurfette syndrome. Red Rising will be released on Jan. 28, 2014.
Overall Grade: C
The Suvudu blog post referred to can be found here: http://sf-fantasy.suvudu.com/2013/10/get-ready-for-the-dystopian-world-of-pierce-browns-red-rising.html