Note: There are some slight spoilers (but not about the ending) in this review. Skip down to the Evaluation to avoid them.
This is the first book of a new trilogy set in a future dysopia on Mars, where society is divided by colors. Darrow, 16, is a Red – the lowest caste, one dedicated to mining Helium-3 for the terraforming of Mars to make it habitable. The Reds live under the surface of Mars; they have never seen the sky or even many other people higher in the color spectrum. Darrow is married to his childhood love Eo (marriage takes place early since life tends to be brutish and short). But Eo is ordered hanged by Archgovernor Nero au Augustus of Mars after she sings a subversive song in the Archgovernor’s presence. Darrow vows to die with her, but his effort to do so is thwarted by those who want more from him.
A group of revolutionaries (“Sons of Ares”) rescues Darrow and arranges to have him surreptitiously transformed into a Gold – the highest caste, so that he can put his desire for revenge to good effect. He enters the training institute of the Golds and is thrown into a competition that makes the Hunger Games seem tame. There are twelve houses, or teams, and there is competition both to dominate within each house, and to defeat the other eleven teams. The struggle will last as long as it takes to establish a victor, and is extremely brutal.
This vicious exercise is intended, as one Proctor explains, to identify “the leaders of men,” rather than “the killers of men,” but the Proctors have sent mixed messages about the value of might over right. Darrow is not the strongest physically, nor does he have influential Proctors to help his cause. Somehow, he has to learn what real leadership is made of, and what sacrifices he has to make if he is to realize his secret goal.
Discussion: There are a lot of pieces of this story that evoke other YA hit books, from The Hunger Games to Harry Potter to Ender’s Game. To this Brown adds aspects of some well-known revenge movies like “Gladiator” and “The Crow” and “Collateral Damage.” It comes together well though, after a slow start. Once you get to Part 2, the action picks up, and there are only a few wobbly sections in the story. By the end, I found myself wholly invested in the book.
To me, the best part about the story is the psychological journey Darrow must take in order to avoid becoming like the people he wants to kill. It is not an easy road, but his ongoing struggles dovetail nicely with his growing ambiguity about the other Golds he had sworn to hate.
Note: Be aware that there is very little nice that goes on in this book that doesn’t end in shocking savagery or horrible tragedy. And rape is used by male combatants not as sex but as an expression of power.
The book can be read as a standalone, but it is obviously meant to be followed with a continuation of the story.
Evaluation: There is a lot to recommend this story: the world-building is quite interesting, and the characterization is good. It is a very violent story, and whether because of this, or in spite of this, it has been extremely well received by early readers.
Published by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, 2014