The Third Rail in Red Rising
Note: the following blog post contains spoilers for Pierce Brown's Red Rising. If you prefer a spoiler-free review, check out the in-line Goodreads review below.
I have been thinking about the popular sci-fi novel Red Rising by Pierce Brown this week, having recently finished reading it.
Red Rising succeeds at a lot of things: the worldbuilding is deep and intricate but fed to you at a place that is easy to digest and the terraformed Martian setting is interesting. The pacing, particularly in the later half of the book, is excellent, pivoting between well-written action scenes and slower-paced dramatic scenes between characters filled with narrative tension that pull you rapidly towards the end of the book.
Equally, there are plenty of things to criticise. The opening act of the book is almost laughably derivative of the Hunger Games. The society based on characters being born into different colors (reds, pinks, browns, all the way up to golds, the best of the best) was lacking in nuance or subtlety as presented. It's too easy to apply our real-world social orders onto this society in ways that are overly simplistic. There are also arguments to be made that Darrow, the protagonist, is a bit of a "Mary Sue" (a character who is good at everything, despite having little reason for their abilities), though personally I found that Darrow's competency in some areas was balanced by his lack of diplomacy and understanding of other characters earlier in the book.
However, the thing I wanted to talk about here that I found interesting was what makes Darrow a compelling character, both how Brown succeeded and how he failed in the novel. Early in the book, the author establishes that Darrow's wife Eo reveals to Darrow the vile truth of the society which they belong to, where Reds like them slave away in ignorance and poverty unaware that the Golds live above them on the surface of Mars in a paradise. She is then promptly hanged for her crime by the Archgovernor, himself a Gold. Darrow, a Red, is predictably sad and angry, and this compels him to join a resistance group known as the Sons of Ares who seek to overturn the rigid society where Golds sit at the top and Reds sit at the bottom.
Lisa Cron, in her book Story Genius, explains that one of the strategies to create a truly compelling protagonist is to ensure there is some traumatic or transformational event in their backstory that establishes a powerful belief or drive within the character that will continue to influence their actions and decisions later in life. When this belief comes into conflict with the events of the story, it puts pressure on the character to act in ways that propel the story in interesting directions. Cron calls this the "third rail," referring to the electrified third rail that powers a subway or tram. I think it's a great concept and in many books it can create truly compelling characters where we root for the character to do one thing to solve their problems but their fears or false beliefs drive them to do another thing.
Brown tries to establish Eo's death as a third rail for Darrow, but for me it completely fell flat. Throughout the book, Darrow repeatedly laments how he misses Eo or how he remains angry with her for the events that transpire in the opening scenes. But instead of creating narrative tension or causing me to care about Darrow, I just groaned and rolled my eyes. Why was Darrow's third rail dead for me as a reader?
A few things come to mind. First is that Darrow and Eo are sixteen. They are married, but little more than children, and only married a short time. While I believe that a young Darrow would indeed be traumatized by the death of his young wife, I, a 40-something reader, found it much harder to buy into the notion that Darrow was deeply motivated or compelled by Eo's actions and ultimately her killing. This is because partly they're so young, but mostly because there's so little time shown with Eo that we get no sense of Darrow and Eo's relationship. Eo comes off as little more than a cardboard cutout of a character.
Darrow is also remarkably ignorant, selfish, short-sighted, and unaware, completely acceptable traits in a sixteen year-old. But again, I found it difficult to see such a naive and selfish kid motivated to suddenly try to change the world; an act that requires vision, motivation, and self-sacrifice. Finally, I personally think that motivating a character by killing their loved one is cheap. It's like showing off how evil a villain is by having them kill a dog. It's an age-old trope, particularly when it comes to male protagonists.
My complete and total lack of belief in the third rail of the book almost drove me to abandon it. I didn't though, and I'm glad. The second half of the book was far more interesting. Here, Darrow develops complex relationships with the other kids at the school - real relationships that have depth and complexity rather than the underdeveloped, barely-shown relationship with Eo. It's here that the story gets its power: Darrow's friendship with Cassius, whose brother Darrow was forced to murder; his struggles against Titus, a violent sociopath whom Darrow puts to death in a way that weakens his standing with the others; his relationship with Mustang, who causes him to continually question her motives and his own feelings. It's the relationships with these characters, and others, that make Red Rising such a compelling story. I hope that in subsequent books the author continues to leverage such compelling character relationships to drive the story forward. If so, it should be a great series to follow.
What did you think of Red Rising? Did you buy into the third rail of Eo's death motivating Darrow? Were there other elements of the book that hooked you or turned you off? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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I write science fiction, fantasy, and science fantasy. I also write about science fantasy, tabletop RPGs, books, culture, and more. If you want more content like this, check out my other blog posts and sign up for my newsletter.