Red Rising reads as if Spartacus was blended with The Hunger Games. Our protagonist, Darrow is a young man of low caste, who believes that his hard labor is helping build Mars into a world that can one day be truly liveable and colonized. Life is not wonderful - in fact the living conditions are down right oppressive, but he's young, in love, and good at what he does. Then life as he knows it is stripped away from him and he escapes with his life only because rebels want to make use of him.
So in the hands of the Sons of Ares, feared terrorists and rebels against the slavery of society, Darrow learns his whole life has been a lie. He his work has nothing to do with bringing about the terraformation of Mars, its been terraformed for centuries, with the highest castes living lives of obscene decadence. His caste are nothing more than slaves who execute the backbreaking and undesirable physical labor. He takes it about as well as he did the death of his wife. The Sons of Ares want to make use of this angry, traumatized, 16 year old boy and turn him into a secret agent. Fortunately he's actually highly intelligent and skilled in addition to being driven for vengeance.
Darrow is surgically rebuilt into the image of a Grecian God, the ideal of the Gold caste. He becomes their Eliza Doolittle as they teach him how to speak and behave like a member of the highest caste. They cultivate his innate skill for extrapolation and thinking outside the box. He becomes their true golden boy, succeeding so well at the entrance exams for the Institute that they investigate him for cheating.
So off to school he goes, along with the best and the brightest of the Golden offspring. Sorted into houses, put through a culling, and then dropped into a game maker's arena while the school proctors watch and occasionally interfere with the bestowing of gifts. Technically this is just a war game, almost a capture the flag/control the fort type setting, with those badly injured removed from game via medbot. Well, a lot of kids die and the game is rigged. If Darrow knows what is good for him he'll let the ArchDuke's son win, but instead he gathers the tattered remains of the different armies under his own banner, earning their trust and respect, and throws his whole will into winning because he's the best and to reveal the corruption.
Being the hardened serf remade into the image of a god that he is, Darrow storms the castle and needs no miracle to succeed. He does what no student has ever done before and impresses the hell out of everyone (except the proctors who were trying to rig the game in favor of the other guy). Winning the game promotes Darrow to the head of his class and earns him his choice of patronage, furthering his Sons of Ares agenda.
Overall, I found Red Rising to be an engaging read. It started a little slow, but picked up speed once shit hit the proverbial fan. As I already stated, the book felt reminiscent of the story of Spartacus and The Hunger Games. The upper castes live a life of decadence and self-indulgence that surpasses even that of Panem's Capitol, and Katniss' prep team would sacrifice limbs for access to some of the remake tools this culture has on hand. The Institute's battlefield could be a gladiatorial ring or a Hunger Game's arena turned into a battle school. I was amused that Ender Wiggen is actually referenced when they are talking about the sorts of military leaders they hope to create.
I did have some problems that I can't quite overlook. I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but they're going to happen (and to some extent have already happened).
The problem that stayed with me throughout the whole book was the use of unnecessary jargon and slang to indicate that this is a futuristic setting. "horizonTram" is unnecessary as were a myriad of mundane things re-branded to indicate futuristic. A lot can be done by using normal descriptors and then giving clues as to how things are different, though at this point various trams and moving sidewalks are almost expected in science fiction. I also think that authors like Ursula Le Guin and Orson Scott Card did amazing jobs at introducing concepts as if they were already established and making it work. We have Le Guin to thank for the concept of an "ansible" and while not the first to include some sort of tablet device, how Card wrote the "desks" is a perfect example of using normal descriptors and revealing from there. I want there to be a compelling reason for a spiffy new name for something, otherwise don't bother. After all, in the setting of the story the item is likely established and possibly even common place.
I'm not sure what's so great about this Institute. Ender's teachers at battleschool may have been deliberately trying to break him, but he was also actively being taught tactics and leadership. First the Institute takes the best and the brightest and kills off half of them. Or more specifically, pairs them off thunderdome style and whoever lives is now a full student. I guess that's one way to start teaching your future military commanders to kill when necessary. They are then dropped off at a fortress in the middle of nowhere, one fortress per school, with limited supplies, and told to go to war (but please try not to kill off too many of your classmates, make them your slaves instead). Then after months of war games filled with abuse, torture, murder, and emergency medical evacuations, someone wins and they graduate. What sort of school is that? Especially considering that these are all peers of the realm and not necessarily all going into the military. There's not really a whole lot of teaching, just a lot of waste and seeing who the luckiest and hardest bastard to kill is.
There are some weird characterization bits. In large part the supporting cast is not given in-depth characterization, but then the book is entirely told in the first person so we're seeing people as Darrow does. That being said I'm confused as all hell about his wife. He describes her both as content and peaceful and as righteous and revolutionary in thought. Those don't really work together so well. I can't figure out if his friend from the institute Cassius is just a high-born twat or someone with an overdeveloped sense of familial honor. The swearing blood feud on Darrow for deciding not to let Cassius' brother kill him is a bit overkill, particularly as the oath involves a bit about if both of them enter a room only one will leave living and then a few pages later they are in the same room at closing ceremonies. However, as much as every view of the different characters is obviously biased, Darrow has his own personal battles as he realizes that he is growing to care about some of these Gold Caste brats.
I am generally leery of the "chosen one" troupe. The Sons of Ares take a huge risk with Darrow. For all that they know some about him, they really are lucky that he is so bloody brilliant and a quick study. They do admit previous attempts and failures, but from the sounds of it most of them failed during the surgical procedures, not at the later, more vulnerable, stages. It is also likely that Darrow is not their only effort at that time, as is discovered with Titus. However, Darrow is very much recruited in a "you are the only one who can do this" method. Maybe he does have qualifications that the other candidates didn't.
Finally, I don't know what to make of the end. I feel like he made this massive effort to beat the rigged system and prove the corruption, and then he just throws it away to swear fealty to the man he discredited. Yes, the patronage he gets furthers the Sons of Ares plan, but so would a number of other choices readily available. He took the one that is counter to what he spent close to a third of the book working towards, and one that probably causes some hard feelings on the part of all the friends and students who helped him get to that point. I might have missed something, but the end makes no sense to me.
Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.