Building Mars: How Red Rising Flubs Class Conflict

The red wolf crest of House Mars in Red Rising

Red Rising by Pierce Brown imagines a far future where humanity has spread across the solar system. There’s just one problem: a rigid, color-coded caste system ensures the constant oppression of those at the bottom for the benefit of those at the top. Ruling Golds strut around their mansions in command of vast fleets, while lowly Reds toil in the mines and are paid in scraps. Between these two extremes, a host of other colors are genetically engineered to fit specific roles, from Obsidian supersoldiers to Violet artists.

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: Red Rising is a very bad book. The protagonist is driven entirely by toxic masculinity, the plot doesn’t start until nearly 20% of the way in, and conflicts are only ever resolved via a hidden plan reveal. Just hidden plans over and over again until the book is completely devoid of tension and satisfaction. Brown, I’m begging you, learn another way to resolve your conflicts! We have a whole list for you. There’s also a lot of rape, which is very bad and not nearly as much fun to critique.

I wasn’t originally planning to write about this book, but then I noticed two things. 1: It’s very popular, and 2: In addition to the mediocre plotting and one-note characterization, the worldbuilding is bad in interesting ways. Red Rising is a story of systemic oppression, class struggle, and revolution, all topics that are on a lot of people’s minds these days. With luck, Brown’s poor choices can serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of us. And before you head to the comments section, please remember we’re only looking at the first book today. If some of these problems are addressed in later books, and that’s great if so, it still doesn’t retroactively fix them in this book.

The Good

Two Golds wearing scifi armor.

As eager as I am to pick this color-themed mess apart, it’s important to start by acknowledging where Red Rising’s worldbuilding is actually good. Even the worst books usually have some gems if you know what to look for. Still, it’s not a long list.

An Alien Martian Underworld

Red Rising starts with protagonist Darrow working on his mining drill along with a team of other Reds. Plot-wise, this section is deadly dull, as a bunch of bad things happen that Darrow has no agency in. However, from a worldbuilding perspective, this is probably the most interesting part of the story. It’s a subterranean world where Reds are born, live, and die without ever seeing the surface, something inherently alien.

Brown doesn’t skimp on the details here. We get lots of sensory data about the environment, from the pungent smells of hard labor to the dangerous heat produced by Darrow’s equipment. The dangers of gas pockets and cave-ins are ever present, and Brown uses disagreements between the miners as a natural way to explain how things work.

Even better, we see the effects of class marginalization right away. The Reds’ equipment is not only uncomfortable but also prone to failure. The aptly named “frysuits” are supposed to provide protection against the elements, but the best they can usually manage is to turn a fatal injury into a debilitating one. There’s also an obvious sense of desperation, as many Reds feel the need to take dangerous risks so their families won’t starve.

These themes continue even when Darrow clocks out for the day. Those Reds who don’t work the mines still have to put in a full work week in addition to their domestic labor. In the day cycle,* they weave cloth from genetically engineered silkworms. In the night cycle, they pool resources or hit the black market for critical supplies like clothes and medicine. It’s an excellent combination of an alien environment with a familiar system of marginalization. Of course, once we get to the surface, it’s far less interesting: terraforming has basically turned it into Earth but with lower gravity, which the book seems to forget about most of the time anyway. Still, it’s nice while it lasts!

Songs and Dances

Something a lot of stories about poor people forget is that no matter how poor someone is, they’re still humans with desires and wants. There’s always more to a group of people than the horrible conditions under which they work, but stories often gloss over that in the rush to drive home how bad a situation is. Fortunately, Red Rising is not one of those stories!

Even though we spend less than a fifth of the book with the Reds, Brown still finds time to show us what they do for fun: namely, singing and dancing. This is another aspect of worldbuilding that’s often neglected, perhaps because it’s not sufficiently badass, but how a culture sings and dances can tell you a lot about them.

Right away, we see that with few material luxuries, the Reds have to make their own entertainment. Their music is mostly vocal since they have few instruments, and the few they do have are highly prized, often handed down from parent to child. The Reds brew their own drinks from Martian fungus and always try to save up enough food for the occasional celebration, despite how little they have to work with.

Their dancing is highly acrobatic thanks to Mars’s low gravity, another way in which Brown lets culture flow from the environment. Granted, there is a section about how Reds always dance solo because “only alone can a boy become a man,” which is that toxic masculinity I mentioned rearing its ugly head. Despite that, it’s pretty unusual for a super masculine protagonist like Darrow to have any dance or music in his backstory, so I’ll take what I can get.

Finally, there’s a political aspect to the Reds’ music and dancing as well, just as often as in real life. Despite being constantly monitored, the Reds have songs and dances of resistance, one of which is a catalyst for some major events in the plot. The song itself is pretty catchy, especially if you listen to it in the audio book.

Evil Space Romans

Enough about the Reds, let’s talk about our villains: the privileged Golds. These folks are a society of genetically engineered super-aristocrats, and despite expressing admiration for historical figures like Hannibal and Alexander, they have exactly one cultural inspiration: Rome.

The Golds nearly all have Latin names like Augustus, Octavia, Cassius, and the like. Their military is made up of legates, praetors, and legionaries. They have a senate, complete with the more obscure ranks like quaestor. They’ve even got the Roman system of patronage going, or at least something that looks similar on the surface.

Rome is a fantastic culture to base your evil empire on for a few reasons. First, Rome is fairly well known among English speakers, so a lot of readers will automatically recognize the tropes you’re using, saving you a lot of worldbuilding time. Second, Rome was an expansionist empire heavily dependent on slave labor, so it’s earned a nock or two. Third, as Rome is the antecedent of most Western cultures in one way or another, you don’t have to worry about cultural appropriation or playing into harmful stereotypes.

Perhaps more importantly, creating a Space Rome is a clear signal for the type of story you plan to tell: one that has turned all the dials up to eleven. If the scifi bad guys are so lacking in subtlety as to name themselves after an empire famous for conquering and enslaving people, readers will know they’re in for a story with lots of over-the-top tropes. For the most part, that’s exactly the mood Brown needs for his story about a muscle-bound Adonis punching class oppression directly in the face.

The Bad

Darrow in Red armor with black smoke behind him.

And that’s it for the good stuff. I told you it wouldn’t be a very long list. Now, settle in – it’s time to talk about everything else. Even though the plotting and character development are atrocious, I promise to stick to worldbuilding as much as possible, since we’re all busy people.

Impractical Oppression Tactics

While Brown does a fairly good job describing the Reds and their culture, once he gets to the mechanisms by which the Reds are marginalized, things get a lot flimsier. First, there’s the Laurel, a prize that the various Red clans compete for by trying to mine the most Helium-3. Whoever wins the Laurel gets gifts of incredible luxury like sugar and antibiotics from their Gold overlords. Sometimes, the Golds even throw in some instant coffee. How generous!

It’s pretty clear that the purpose of the Laurel is to keep the Reds fighting with each other for scraps while the Golds jet around on spaceships and eat bioprinted T-Rex steak. That’s all fine, but then there’s a big plot point about how the Laurel is always given to the same Red clan, no matter who mines more Helium-3. This is described as being a brilliant move on the Golds’ part to crush the Reds’ spirit, but it’s actually an act of major incompetence.

The whole point of competitions like the Laurel is to get poor people to play a game they can’t win. If they just do well enough, they’ll surely get ahead! In real life, this is the purpose behind the idea that anyone can become a billionaire if they work hard. So long as everyone is focused on the game, they don’t stop to ask why the rich have such an outsized share of resources. By rigging their own game in such an obvious way, the Golds are encouraging Reds to not buy into the system. It’s the same reason why on the rare occasion when someone does actually break into the upper classes in our own world, they are hailed as an example of the system working. It’s such a rare occurrence that it’s no threat to entrenched elites, and it keeps the rest of us believing that we don’t need universal healthcare since one day we’ll strike it rich and get all the antibiotics we can eat.

A similar event occurs when Darrow is finally taken out of the mines by his new resistance friends. Reds are raised to believe that all their hard work and sacrifice is in the name of terraforming Mars. Once that’s done, they’ll supposedly get their well-earned reward. But surprise, we find out that Mars is already completely terraformed, and the whole story is an elaborate fabrication.

First, this strains credibility to the breaking point, even in a setting with evil space Romans. We see a lot of non-Reds work in the mines too; are we supposed to believe they all strictly adhere to infosec protocols? The more people who know something, the harder it is to keep secret, as anyone with experience in high school gossip can tell you. Plus, all it would take is one Good Samaritan from the surface, and the whole story would be blown wide open. Darrow’s resistance friends say they haven’t spilled the beans yet for strategic reasons, but is there really no one else who feels differently?

More important than the masquerade’s practical issues, it’s completely unnecessary. All the Golds needed to do was invent some propaganda about how the Reds must earn their place on the surface, and then arrange the economic system so only a tiny handful ever qualify. That’s what real elites do, and it works great!

This is pretty much all we see of the Reds’ situation, and shortly after, the story transitions to focus entirely on the Golds. Strange choice for a story that purports to be about class warfare in its early chapters.

Unprepared Evil Space Romans

The actual plot of Red Rising is about Darrow infiltrating Gold society so he can one day bring it down from the inside. To do this, he has to go through a bunch of surgeries to have the physical capacity of a Gold,* and then he has to attend the Institute, which is basically a murder school. Promising Gold teenagers are brought together so they can fight to the death in what even the characters admit is an elaborate game of capture the flag, but with swords and castles. This is all in the name of not falling into “decadence,” a problem the Golds seem obsessed with.

Now, in real life, rich parents would never send their children to a school where half the students die on just the first day. Facing the constant threat of death is a job for poor people! But these are evil space Romans, who also embody a hefty dose of Ayn Rand’s objectivism and Star Trek’s honor-obsessed Klingons, so it’s easy to suspend your disbelief. Given the premise, it’s totally believable that Gold teenagers are raring to go for murder school.

Except that they aren’t. In fact, the Institute’s brutal nature is as much a surprise to the genuine Golds as it is to Darrow. Most of them are horrified at the idea of having to kill their classmates, and the early scenes are like something out of Battle Royale. Apparently, what happens at the Institute is a closely held secret. The only people who know are those who went through it, and they never talk, not even to their own children. We find this out in no uncertain terms when Darrow is put into a death match with his friend Julian, who helpfully exposits that he and the other Gold kids knew nothing about this. Then he dies.

If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. From what we can tell, Gold parents generally care about their children and wouldn’t want them to die if there was another option. More importantly, doing well at the Institute is a major boon for amassing influence and wealth later in life, something the power-hungry Gold families are always after. They can’t reap these benefits if their kids die at murder school.

Given that set up, you’d expect Gold children to be trained for the Institute practically from birth. In particular, they would be trained to kill, probably practicing on some expendable Reds. Even if it was officially against the rules, the stakes are so high that no Gold family would ever send their kid to the Institute without a ton of preparation. Instead we have the opposite situation.

Militarists With No One to Fight

Another strange wrinkle of Gold society is the military. Like the evil space Romans they are, the Golds are obsessed with martial service. Both the official government and the great houses maintain huge fleets, along with massive ground armies of Obsidian supersoldiers. Much like Prussia in the late 1700s, nearly all of Gold society seems to revolve around the armed forces. In fact, Darrow’s main goal is to rise through the ranks until he’s in a position of military authority.

There’s just one problem: the Golds have no one to fight. What’s more, they haven’t had anyone to fight for centuries, not since they conquered Earth from their evil moon base. They run the entire solar system. Gold society is also supposed to be stable, remaining relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.

This combination is incredibly unlikely. States do not possess large militaries and then just leave them lying around. If an army isn’t fighting, it’s little more than a pit into which you throw money. The Golds would have either greatly reduced their military, since they don’t need a hundred battleships to keep the lower colors in line, or more likely, they’d have started fighting each other. Instead, we’re told that while Golds are constantly competing with each other, they almost always do it subtly. The characters do mention a rebellion that took place about 60 years before the story starts, but it’s apparently an exception to the rule.

An easy solution to this would have been for the Golds to have some external enemies, which is the reason militaries exist in real life. It would have fit with the evil space Roman aesthetic too. Even at the height of its power, the Roman Empire always had enemies on the frontier to deal with. This necessitated large armies, which were in turn used by various claimants to the throne during Rome’s many civil wars. Basically, why aren’t there any evil space Persians or evil space Germans?

It’s possible Brown thought that adding additional factions to the solar system would have made the worldbuilding more complicated, but it’s actually the opposite. We didn’t need to learn the other space faction’s entire history, just know they existed. That would have fit much better with the premise of a Rome-inspired empire in space, and we’d have to spend fewer brain cells puzzling over it.

Bland Murder School Houses

After the first day at the Institute, when half the students kill the other half, the survivors are sorted into houses for their game of hard-core capture the flag. There are twelve houses in all, each of them named after a Roman god: Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Minerva, etc. These houses exist outside the Institute too, as something between social clubs and political parties. This is how loyalties are determined in the game.

Dividing your spec fic students into themed houses is a serviceable trope, but there’s just one problem: Red Rising’s houses are incredibly bland. After over 140,000 words, I can barely tell you anything about them. I know that Mars, the protagonist’s house, is supposed to be heavy on aggression and low on staying power, but that’s about it. The other houses are completely interchangeable, all eleven of them. The only other pattern I noticed was that the houses tended to have leaders that matched the gender of their assigned god, but I can’t say if that was intentional.

Other than that, the murder school houses completely blur together. I can barely remember which house is supposed to have done what, and it doesn’t seem to matter. You could rearrange the houses with a random number generator, and it wouldn’t change the story at all. This is especially annoying because the houses are based off of the Roman gods; you couldn’t ask for a richer thematic vein to mine. Each of the gods come prepackaged with their own schtick, and while some of them wouldn’t translate directly,* there’s still an incredible amount to mine.

It’s possible this was even Brown’s intent. House Diana starts in a forest, which would fit with her role as a goddess of the hunt. We also get a passing line about House Vulcan starting out with forges that they use to make weapons early on, which fits with their patron god. But that’s it. Other than that, the houses use essentially the same tactics and equipment, some are just better at it than others. Even House Mars, which gets the most development, eventually fades into the same generic beige.

Rigged Murder Games

While the Institute’s 12 houses may be bland and hard to remember, one aspect of the competition is crystal clear: the whole thing is rigged against House Mars, which just so happens to be the house that Darrow is a part of. They start with no supplies, a poorly positioned castle, and only the most basic of tools and weapons. They don’t even have matches to start a fire!

Meanwhile, every other house they run into has loads of stuff, from food to weapons and even horses. The book also makes a point that most of the other houses have better castles than Mars. From a storytelling perspective, this is meant to increase tension. Darrow has to do well at the Institute so he can go on to infiltrate the Gold military, and that’ll be harder to do when every other house is better fed and equipped.

But from an in-character perspective, it makes no sense. Remember, House Mars exists outside the Institute as well, and it directly benefits from how well its students do. So why aren’t the Mars leaders raising hell over this? They’re being cheated out of a chance at power and influence, something no Gold would tolerate according to Red Rising. Did someone tell them that Darrow is a protagonist and needs to be challenged?

Later in the story, when we discover that certain parties are actually trying to rig the murder games, the book makes a huge deal about how careful they need to be. If it comes to light that the nearly sacred Institute is being tampered with, heads will roll. And yet, somehow no one objects to one house starting at an obvious disadvantage. Maybe the idea is supposed to be that Mars gets more promising students in exchange for a worse start, but if so, it’s never properly explained. Instead, it feels like Brown can’t make up his mind: Is the Institute a free-for-all between competing organizations, or is it a school specifically designed to teach House Mars the value of overcoming hardship?

Misplaced Misogyny

Red Rising is an extremely sexist story. Partly, this is down to the plotting. Despite a seemingly never-ending roster of major characters, very few of them are women. Naturally, the one woman who does get significant screen time is Darrow’s love interest, and even she ends up getting damselled at the end. It also just so happens that the female-associated houses get taken out first and usually without much trouble. Ceres, Minerva, Juno, and Diana all bite the dust before Darrow takes action against any of the boy houses, and we never find out what happened to Venus.

But the worldbuilding is also sexist, sometimes in very strange ways. The Reds seem to practice a strict division of labor, the only purpose of which is so that Darrow can think about his wife with lines like “Without me, she would not eat. Without her, I would not live.” Nevermind all the domestic work his wife does, in addition to her full-time job. It’s the men who make material contributions, while women… are hot, I guess? Darrow is never shown to be wrong, and since the Reds are portrayed as the noble victims of marginalization, it’s hard to see the book as doing anything other than endorsing their misogyny.

It gets way weirder with the Golds. About 50% of their culture seems to be sexist insults, and it’s a rare event when more than a couple lines of dialogue go by without someone yelling a variant of “you hit like a girl.” Gendered slurs are the norm, complete with heavy doses of slut shaming. One of the more badass dudes, a guy named Pax, apparently has a feminine sounding laugh, whatever that means, and it’s the cause of much hilarity.

That’s annoying enough on its own, but then it seems like the Golds are supposed to be egalitarian along gender lines? Based on my count, there seem to be about as many women in positions of power as there are men. The women are less important to the plot, but setting wise they seem equal. The highest Gold leader is a woman, and the Institute’s murder school is totally coed.

This is baffling. Somehow, Gold society is even more hostile to women than our own, and yet they have a nearly 50/50 split in the halls of power. How does that work? Are Gold women powered entirely by rage and that’s how they’re so prominent?

All the Colors of White

We like to answer reader questions here at Mythcreants, and every once in a while, someone will ask us about using nonhuman colors like green or purple for their sapient humanoids. There’s an idea that doing this would eliminate race as a consideration. I always recommend against it, and Red Rising is a great example of why.

Left to their own devices, readers have a bad habit of assuming that a character is white by default. Sometimes, they’ll do this even when it’s explicitly stated otherwise. The white-as-default assumption is strong, and authors need to be extra clear if they want to counteract it.

Red Rising does the opposite. Its description is very vague about what most characters look like, even the important ones. Usually we get no more than an indication of their general body shape. Sometimes it’s even less than that. When we first meet the love interest, her only description is about hair length.

This is already a prime situation for readers to assume every character is white, and the color-coded worldbuilding makes it worse. The most prominent facet of every character’s description is their caste color, and since none of them are colors humans actually have,* it makes the white-as-default impulse even stronger. A Red is imagined as a white person tinged with red. A Gold is imagined as a white person with extra-blond hair. Google Red Rising fan art if you want to see this in action, with a few notable exceptions.

Pierce Brown could have addressed this with proper description, but since he didn’t, we’re left with a rainbow world that somehow still has only white people in it.

What We Can Learn

The red wing symbol from Red Rising.

The bright side of Red Rising’s shoddy worldbuilding is that there’s a whole lot we can learn from it. At least, that’s how I got myself through the last few chapters. I haven’t been able to draw any positive lessons from this mess, but there are plenty of cautionary ones.

Stick to Your Themes

Themes are what makes your world feel cohesive and well formed. If you don’t have strong themes, the world will be easily forgotten. If you establish a theme and then break it, readers will immediately notice. Despite the damage it causes, authors are often tempted to break theme for the sake of a juicy plot point or character moment, and that’s exactly what happens in Red Rising.

This is most apparent in the murder school contradictions. This is a society that’s so into violence that they send their children off to die, and yet they also don’t prepare their kids as much as possible? The only reason for this break in theme seems to be so that Brown can squeeze some extra angst out of Darrow killing Julian. If the world followed its themes, Julian would have been ready to kill or be killed. Instead, Brown wrote Julian like a regular rich kid told he has to kill his classmate, all so that Darrow can feel like a monster. So dark, very grim, wow.

Other thematic breaks include the Golds’ shoddy systems of oppression and the lack of anyone for this huge military to fight. That first one is particularly irritating in a story about class oppression. In real life, a major obstacle in the fight for equality is people thinking there must be some overly elaborate conspiracy manipulating things from behind the scenes. Even when such ideas aren’t blatant antisemitism, they miss the important truth: rich people don’t need to sneak around behind the scenes; they work right out in the open where everyone can see them.

If Brown wanted Julian’s death to be extra emotional without breaking theme, then he needed to build a stronger connection between Darrow and Julian. That way, the drama would have come from Darrow killing his friend instead of Julian switching from an evil space Roman to a regular rich kid.

Fewer Factions Means More Development

There’s one main reason the factions in Red Rising are bland: there’s too many of them. Even with several Houses destroyed offscreen, there’s no time to give the remaining ones more than a cursory glance. Jupiter feels the same as Apollo and Pluto because there isn’t enough page space to show their differences.

If I were hired to edit a book like Red Rising, I’d slash the number of houses in half, at least. Six is still a lot of factions, but it’s theoretically manageable. With 12 houses, we often have no more than one or two encounters with each house before Darrow defeats them. Sometimes it’s even less. If there were only six, that would leave room for more back-and-forth battles, rather than having to check each house off the list so we can get to the ending. If it’s important for there to be 12 houses in later books, just say that half of them are going through murder school at a different location.

Of course, that still leaves the issue of actually making each house distinct. This would also be easier if the kids were trained for the Institute, like they would be in a more consistent setting. Different houses might have established traditions and tactics, either based on their patron god or invented from whole cloth. We could actually develop the building-focused tactics of House Vulcan, while Diana’s excellent scouts would be the envy of other houses.

That way, the factional differences would be plot relevant. The best way to make sure readers remember something is to make it relevant in whatever the protagonist is doing. It’s not just exposition; it actually matters.

Make Your Villains Competent

The competency of your villains is usually more about character and plot than setting, but Red Rising shows us how it can have worldbuilding implications too. Remember how the entire scenario is set up to put House Mars at a disadvantage? The book does that because Darrow is drowning in candy, and no enemy stands a chance against him. Seriously, the book spends chapter after chapter building up a mysterious enemy called the Jackal, and Darrow defeats him without even realizing it.

With such incompetent antagonists, Brown’s only option for maintaining tension is to put Darrow’s team at a huge disadvantage. That way, readers might imagine Darrow is in trouble even though none of his enemies can find their ass with both hands. This does significant damage to the setting, as readers are left wondering why House Mars is the only one without weapons and mounts.

Just as important, Brown’s strategy isn’t very effective at building tension. Partly, this is due to repetition in the plot. Darrow is constantly defeating enemies who have better stuff than he does, and it never seems particularly difficult. But at a more basic level, readers don’t have a mathematical understanding of how big an advantage characters get from better gear. You can tell a reader that one guy has a bronze sword while the other has an iron one, but that doesn’t mean much unless your reader is already versed in the metallurgy of swordsmithing.

With work, it’s possible to help readers build an understanding of what advantage a piece of gear provides, but Red Rising doesn’t do that work. Fortunately, there’s a much easier way to build tension: show your villains winning sometimes! Granted, this would be easier if Red Rising didn’t have 12 houses to get through, but the point remains. Having Darrow’s enemies win a few battles would have been far more effective than all the talk of them having better weapons.

Ironically, Brown does use this tactic, but only when Darrow is facing members of his own house. This happens twice, and both opponents are far more threatening than anyone else Darrow crosses swords with.* Unfortunately, neither competent opponent amounts to much. One dies early in the story, whereas the other is irrelevant after the halfway point.

Leave the Misogyny at Home

Content Notice: Sexual violence in fiction

Whenever I work with clients, my advice on bigoted settings is always the same: unless challenging that bigotry is the point of your story, leave it out. If challenging the bigotry in question is your goal, there are still a lot of pitfalls to avoid, but if it’s not, all you’re doing is making the story hostile to anyone who experiences that bigotry in real life. Worse, there’s a good chance your story will come off as endorsing the bigotry in question, either through inaction, or because your heroes actively participate in it.

This is always important, but for a novel like Red Rising, it’s doubly so. Brown’s story is explicitly about fighting against class oppression, so including all this unchallenged sexism creates the impression the story is furthering one cause at the expense of another. Now, in real life, sexism and classism often intersect,* but that isn’t what Red Rising shows us. Instead, the extreme focus on how Darrow is marginalized for his caste creates the impression that when liberation finally comes, it will only be for a certain kind of people.

Because it would be irresponsible to leave this out, I want to show you just how low Red Rising sinks in this department. Until now, I’ve tried to keep the descriptions of sexism abstract, but for this I have to get into some detail about rape.

One of the House Mars antagonists I mentioned earlier is this guy named Titus, a towering brute that Darrow must contend with for leadership of his house. Titus is a brutal man, and to illustrate this, Brown has him maim several prisoners as an act of intimidation. This is something no other character has done, and it’s very effective at showing how much worse Titus is than the other students.

Apparently that wasn’t enough, because Titus then rapes a number of female prisoners as well. This goes on for a while. Fortunately, it mostly happens offscreen, but the book still manages to include some incredibly gross description that I won’t repeat. Already, this has all the hallmarks of gratuitous rape in fiction. It doesn’t make us hate Titus more than we already did, and it risks causing real harm to survivors. Plus, it doesn’t at all fit with the book’s over-the-top atmosphere of evil space Romans, and it raises questions about why their elite murder school is coed.

But wait, it gets worse! After Titus is defeated, it’s revealed that, like Darrow, he’s a Red infiltrating Gold society. Those were revenge rapes, you see, after some unrelated Gold men assaulted someone close to Titus. Darrow, upon hearing this, spends a lot of time feeling sorry for Titus. Isn’t it totally understandable that he’d want to commit rape in the name of class solidarity? In the end, Darrow has Titus executed not because Titus is a rapist, but because he’s bad at maintaining his cover and might give the game away.

This is why I say that Red Rising flubs class conflict. Brown had all the pieces to write a rip-roaring story about standing up to evil space Romans, but instead the story goes full grimdark and ends up treating women as acceptable losses in the fight for revolution. When authors take on important topics like class conflict, they have a responsibility to engage with care. When they don’t, the best possible outcome is readers like me getting mad at the obvious failures. The worst outcome is a less aware reader thinking that rape jokes are fine so long as they’re only about well-off women. This care must be taken at all levels, but it usually starts with worldbuilding. If your story has a rotten foundation, the rest will never hold up.

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  1. GeniusLemur

    Until we got to Titus, I was thinking “so the mighty resistance thinks they’re going to overthrow this solar-system spanning, who knows how many billion person empire with ONE infiltrator?” Apparently they do have more, but it doesn’t seem their working together, so the point still stands: how does the resistance expect a handful of class infiltrators to make any change at all to this gigantic and deeply entrenched system?
    Hell, how does the author expect the protagonist to change anything, no matter how much protagonist candy Brown pours on Darrow?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      They talk a lot about how Darrow will one day be in a position to command a fleet, and then they can use that somehow. I feel like they’d have a hard time getting the fleet to follow his orders once it becomes clear what’s going on, but who knows.

      Ironically, Darrow would be very useful as an agent passing info to the resistance, but they don’t bring that up IIRC.

  2. Kenneth Mackay

    It sounds as if it would be possible to just buy off such infiltrators, if killing them wasn’t an easier option. “Congratulations, you’ve managed to pass the tests and pass as one of us – you’re officially a Gold now!”

    Unless there’s a faction of Golds ready to rebel (maybe families whose kids died at murder school), or a solid coalition of the other colours prepared to back up whatever plan the Reds come up with, it certainly doesn’t seem likely that a single infiltrator could accomplish much…!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I also have my doubts about how much Darrow could realistically accomplish. He does a bunch of stuff in the later books, but I haven’t read them so I can’t comment on how well it works.

    • Jenn H

      Plot twist: Everyone at the school is an infiltrator. Those who survive have morally compromised themselves so badly that they can’t go back to their original castes and end up joining the Golds.

  3. Cay Reet


    Off the top of my head, one way to improve the story drastically would be to make the murder school one for Reds (or other low-ranking casts). Of course, the Reds don’t know it’s a murder school, either, but having a kid attending could lead to better rations or some other extras. Or getting into that school would mean a better position later for those who survive it, including the families. The Golds would get good, strong soldiers or officers who risk their life instead of them, those who die are just collateral the Golds don’t worry about, and uncovering the school to the general public could spark a rebellion.

    I would like to point out that the Greek equivalent of Venus, Aphrodite, started out as a goddess of war – but, yeah, I don’t want to know what the Venus house members do to win in this fight.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Considering the other sexist messages with this story, I doubt it would be good!

      • Luke Slater

        Just busking here, but one option working in that theme would be to have each house – the larger political structure – focus on control a section of society matching their patron: Jupiter the political, Juno the civil service, Minerva the military command, Ceres agriculture, Vulcan industry and so on. You could even have them paired off so that two houses share an area of responsibility, but approach it with different attitudes. That way, Mars could be the underdog house because they are the less successful military group; perhaps they are on the rocks because their methodology has been out of vogue since drones replaced human soldiers in most theatres.

        Murder school could be the destination for second or third children – heir and a spare and the family death machine – who would know what it was. The houses would support their children with whatever resources they command – better weapons, base facilities, good supplies – which in the case of Mars would specifically be training to kill from as soon as they could walk. If you want to up the angst, this could mean that your protagonist is infiltrating the faction who make up for lack of weapons and decent castles with a childhood spent beating rebellious Reds to death. The initial conflicts would be focused on Minerva as the rival military house; the golds born into Mars would see this as the only fight worth pursuing, while the protagonist might have a hit list of all the houses to work through as part of a plan they are only partly privy to (not victory through suddenly revealed hidden plans, but rather an emergent doubt as to the goals of the rebellion. Is it really a Red Rising, or are the Blues District 13ing the Reds and intending to take over when the Golds go down and execute a whole bunch of Reds as part of their law and order platform?)

        Oh, and no rape. That would be a good thing.

        • Cay Reet

          I like the idea. Instead of just twelve un-distinguishable houses competing who can kill the most people, have them raise the gold children to take certain functions in society.

          Or do indeed send the ‘unnecessary’ child to the school – either they come back as killing machines or they will simply never come back and you don’t have to worry about them. Perhaps inheritance laws are very strict and only first-born inherit anything…

          And, yeah, no rape, that would be great … as Hel.

  4. Star of Hope

    So with the hypothetical Evil Space Persian Empire and evil space Germanic tribes,they can stay out of the story and be referenced, even if they could contribute to the story? For instance I have another side Character be from this Empire like for instance a Space Arminius who would work with the main Hero or an Space Persian also entering the school to stop the Evil Space Romans, should the countries they originated in also be included, when we have important Characters coming from these countries? For instance have the Space Arminius have peace with the Space Romans by changing their attitudes to the other countries or the Space Persian wishing to study this land and be the smart person to figure out how to destroy the system with the Main Hero and the Space Arminius, who is not going to die like the Real life counterpart. Is this good or not as an idea?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      For a story like Red Rising, I don’t think Space Persia or Space Germany have to be super involved in the story. This plot is about winning murder school, it’s enough to know there are other space countries out there.

      Of course, that doesn’t mean they *can’t* play a role. Having other space countries put agents in the school would make the plot more complex, but that might be a good thing as it can be easier to generate content that way.

      • Star of Hope

        Well winning murder school is pretty edgy, but if they want to touch evil empires they need to really show it.

        I mean a fascist regime without enemies won’t function, so how can they still exists? They should have had either self-made Enemies or an rival empire on their border.

        • Bellis

          Or at the very least have a propaganda-machine invent an outside enemy! Otherwise the military would be more likely just a crowd-control police to beat down the Red’s who try to strike or do any sort of actually realistic uprising (as opposed to sending isolated agents into murder school who will then realistically persue their own goals if they come up ahead, instead of actually freeing the rest of the Reds).
          Then again, the invented enemy is a very old and tired trope…

  5. Tony

    Based on the conflict against evil Romanesque elites who force poor people to fight for a chance at wealth, my immediate thought is: “This just sounds like bargain-barrel Hunger Games In Space!” The “12 houses” thing also sounds a bit like the 12 districts, though it reminds me of the 12 cabins at Camp Half-Blood too.

    • Jeppsson

      In the Hunger Games, though, the real upper class didn’t send their kids to fight to the death. It was something they forced working people to do in order to demonstrate that they had absolute power. Also, it was actually only the people at the bottom whose kids were at risk. More, so-to-speak, middle-class working districts would pick orphaned or otherwise unwanted kids to fight for them, train and brainwash the kids since they were little, so when the kids became teenagers they would “volunteer” to fight for their districts and also be good at it.

      I think the worldbuilding in the Hunger Games was pretty shoddy in many ways (although I overall enjoyed the books), but going by this article (since I haven’t read Red Rising), it sounds like HG still has a much more plausible set-up than RR.

      • Cay Reet

        The setup of HG, weak as it might be in places, is much more plausible, yes. In no society does the ruling class easily risk the lives of their children. HG would be more realistic if the games weren’t broadcasted to everyone, but the idea of the rich and wealthy having those games is not all that unrealistic.

  6. SunlessNick

    So… the worst of the Golds was another Red infiltrator. Normally that would be another failed class message, but instead the story is so sexist that he’s forgiven for multiple rapes. Is that about right?

  7. LeeEsq

    Using any pre-modern empire has the basis for your intergalactic evil empire seems to be an odd choice because a lot of pre-modern empires lacked the administrative capacity to be really totalitarian. The Romans, Persians, Chinese, and others might have gotten heavy handed with rebellions but couldn’t get as efficiently horrible as the different Communist or Fascist dictatorships because they lacked the means to go all out. It’s a big misunderstanding of how pre-modern empires operated.

    • Cay Reet

      As a matter of fact, any ‘space empire’ will probably operate similarly to the Roman or Chinese empire, because once you rule more than one planet, you will need to rely on auxiliary administration to keep things going, because you can’t be everywhere and control everything.

      • Bellis

        Depending on how you handle space travel (FTL? Teleportation?) in your worldbuilding. But yeah, realistically it would be impossible to have direct power over every planet and asteroid at once.

        • LeeEsq

          Direct power requires both efficient means of communication and transportation. Even 20th century states had problems with this if they were big enough. The Soviet Union had lots of differences in how things were handled based in the different components. A lot of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic was one of the poorer republics on paper but in reality tended to be a lot wealthier because the local leaders were willing to turn a blind eye to a lot of market activity after Stalin died.

  8. Rose Embolism

    Wow. The concept really seems unsalvagable. I have to confess I wouldn’t have made it past the “Mining for He3. On Mars.” notion. I mean if a book is going to start out with such an idiotic concept, s it really worth continuing?

    A quick.look at the review sites has made me really disenchanted with Amazon. I mean you expect crappy taste on Goodreads, but Amazon actually requires people to buy the book in order to review it.

    • A Perspiring Writer

      I have a theory for that:

      You’re much more likely to review* something you loved than something you maybe didn’t like.

      It might be for another reason: The general public is much less discerning about the media they consume than the people who read Mythcreants are. (That’s why so many terrible, terrible stories are loved***.)

      As always, please inform me if I got anything wrong; this is just my theory.

      *And I mean review, not rate. It’s really easy to rate something, but it takes much more effort to review something**.

      **Case in point, the only two reviews I have on IMDb are for the Sonic movie (a film I thought was okay, 7.5/10), and Daddy’s Home (my most hated film. I hated it. -10/10).

      ***and by that I mean pretty much any popular story

    • Mystery

      “They weren’t bad books,” Phin countered patiently. “They were books that you didn’t enjoy. It’s not the same thing at all. The only bad books are books that are so badly written that no one will publish them. Any book that has been published is going to be a ‘good book’ for someone.”
      Lisa Jewell, The Family Upstairs

      • A Perspiring Writer

        Yeah, saying that most popular stories are ‘bad’ was probably a mistake*.

        And by ‘mistake’ I mean that we should nuke it from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

        *Knee-jerk reaction. To understand more, check out my comment chain on ‘Five Signs Your Story is Classist’.

  9. Caide Fullerton

    “States do not possess large militaries and then just leave them lying around. If an army isn’t fighting, it’s little more than a pit into which you throw money.”

    Ha, tell that to the US.

  10. George Beggar

    By scrolling through the comments it seems to me that almost no one here has read the book, and the article itself contradicts the book at times. For example, Titus was in fact executed because he was a crappy person who did terrible things, not because Darrow thought he would give the ruse away. The article also talks about the incompetence of his enemies and the fact that each one is defeated in short order. That’s the point. The book focuses on Darrow and how he thinks differently than the Golds, using innovative strategies to overcome his disadvantage. Although I agree that the house system could use some more character, I think they, and the ‘murder school’ itself make sense in the context of the world. In our world, the elite compete to send their children to the best schools so they end up in positions of power. The institute is the same sort of thing, just oriented towards war and understanding how to oppress the other colors. Much of the article was nitpicking how parts of the world building make sense, and a lot of it is valid. But that’s the beauty of Red Rising, the characters and general plot make up for it. I have never felt so attached to a cast of characters…ever. Sevro is hilarious, I wish Cassius and Roque were MY friends(for the most part…you know what you did Cassius), and Mustang is much, much more than just a simple love interest. Although Red Rising isn’t the best book ever written, it sets up some of my favorite pieces or writing of all time in the form of the rest of the trilogy. Most of the problems listed in the article are fixed or cease to be relevant. I encourage everyone to slog through the first book, although it isn’t a slog by any stretch of the imagination, if only to witness the glory that is the rest of the series.

    • Brian Walker

      First issue I’ve got, the amount of time spent on toxic masculinity and sexism shows that you weren’t really paying attention. Some of the most bad ass and deadly smart characters are female, so don’t confuse a brutal system with a perspective gleaned from biased observation. 1984 is one of his huge influences, in that it’s a social issue that not only allows this society, but revels in it. People believe that the system is what makes them strong, and so they adhere to it religiously. To argue that all these people would quickly see through the system is to argue that people today see politicians for who they really are and don’t just follow along blindly. Part of keeping that structure is constantly preparing for war with massive war games the focus of entertainment for the whole system. They know they need to keep momentum to keep people in line, and it is the inherent problems with this that are part of what begins to destabilize the system and allow Darrow in. While I might understand the argument that the book reads more like a part 1 than a complete novel, I feel that you latched on to an opinion early on and you saw everything from then on in a way that fit your worldview/ as you wanted it to. At the point i felt you lost objectivity, credibility as an unbiased source went out that window. But that’s just me. And I’m certainly not bloodydamn biased.

      • Julia M.

        I will start by saying that I have read Red Rising. The sexism…well, let’s start with the gendered insults. The characters often throw about the word “cooch”, which is slang for vagina. Speaking as a woman, it gets irritating fast, and feels very derogatory. Also, they use comparisons like “open like a pinkwh**e’s legs”, which is a heavy, heavy dose of slut-shaming. Even though Pinks can be both men and women, in this world, slut shaming insults are disproportionately directed at women.

        Lastly, even though I do like Mustang’s character, remember

        when they invade Mt. Olympus? Juno and Venus, the women, are captured in the bath and in the bed, respectively. Meanwhile, Jupiter gets to fight them in full armor.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Speaking of the Olympus fight, Minerva actually does get to fight, and then as far as I can tell she just disappears? Everyone else we see get defeated but I don’t think we ever find out what happened to her.

          Also, I think they also catch Mercury without his armor, but in his case the scene is about how he’s still dangerous and cool even without it, which is a far cry from Juno and Venus.

          • Julia M.

            Yeah. Apollo gets to fight, Mercury and Jupiter, too. And Juno is literally naked while in the bath, and Venus is in a state of unclothliness. At least Mustang kicks butt at the end, though…

            Also, I read the book a year ago, but I still thought that the constant references to Pinks and such were very off putting.

          • Julia M.

            Also, Christ, you’re getting a lot of flack about this article from people who’ve accused you of “misinterpreting the book”. Does this usually happen?

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Yeah this is fairly standard when I critique a popular book. Some are worse than others, I think Dune was the worst so far. This one got shared in the Red Rising FB group, and while most of the fan ragers kept their comments on FB, a few particularly angry peeps made their way over here.

            I honestly don’t mind, and generally find it fairly amusing when people get so worked up about literary critique. Except for the comments that break our rules, which I trash.

          • Julia M.

            That certainty is terrible. Also, I notice that no one else (except you) I’ve talked to on this post has responded. I wonder why?

            What book will you critique next?

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            I haven’t actually decided on my next worldbuilding critique post, so I’m open to suggestions.

            I do have a critique of The Black Company coming up, but it’s more about tone and atmosphere than worldbuilding.

          • A Perspiring Writer

            Just out of curiosity, is your upcoming critique positive or negative? I’ve never read The Black Company, so I wouldn’t be able to tell how you might react to it.

          • Bunny

            If you wanted a story with a very gross backstory to the worldbuilding, among other odd choices, you could read Strange The Dreamer, which I’ve mentioned before. The WondLa trilogy is sci-fi, but it has some interesting and unusual worldbuilding, so for a less problematic and more cool example I would recommend that.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Re: Perspiring. It’s a mix. I look at both the book’s strengths and weaknesses, though I tend to find it lacking more often than not.

            Re: Bunny. Those are good suggestions, I’ll look into them.

  11. A Perspiring Writer

    I fully expect Jaywall’s two most recent comments to be gone by the end of today…

  12. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I’ve removed a couple of comments for breaking our rules about insulting the author. Disagreeing with us about the material is fine, being a jerk is not.

  13. David C Hughes

    Red rising was a great book…it captures it’s readers who don’t look for what can really happen and what can not really happen in real life since it is a work of fiction. Millions of books sold and enjoyed world wide does not mean it sucked..peirce brown and his team made somthing fun here and when it goes on to being a tv show series it’s gonna blow game of thrones away. You can pick apart the dune series to but does that mean they were not good? Again millons sold and enjoyed. Red rising was great and I wish more books could be this fun.

    • Bunny


      Something selling well does not mean it has no problems. (Just look at 50 Shades of Grey!) Usually, it just seems to mean people are forgiving of or willing to overlook its problems. What’s “great” is a pretty subjective thing; what’s logical or makes sense is less so. You don’t get a pass for a story not making logical sense when it’s trying to present itself as logical, and it doesn’t sound like Red Rising is an absurdist novel – in fact, it sounds like it’s trying to be a grounded novel about class conflict, which… the premise is about rebellion against an unjust upper class, so how could it not be? If that class system doesn’t make sense, that’s a worthwhile and very relevant critique. “Fiction” doesn’t mean “completely disregards any and all reality,” especially since class conflict is literally a real world situation presented in a fictional setting. The dynamics of power are going to be the same whether it’s the rich or the wizards doing the oppressing (or both, I guess, in the case of Red Rising).

      That doesn’t mean that nobody liked it, clearly – that’s why you’re commenting here, after all – but it’s well worth discussing, and I’d ask you to think about whether it would have been better if these elements had made more sense in the story.

      Furthermore, this analysis covers both what the book did right and what it did wrong – and I don’t think you’re taking issue with the article’s assessment of what it did right. Things you enjoy can have illogical and problematic parts, and those parts can be learned from. That’s the whole point. You’re not wrong for enjoying them, but gaining enjoyment from something doesn’t mean it’s unquestionable, either.

      Personally, I think I’d hate this book. I wouldn’t be able to get past the unnecessary sexism and overcandied protagonist and lack of diversity and rape, even if I could overlook the other ridiculous worldbuilding – all of these things would make me DNF pretty quick. But hey, I’d also say that your enjoyment is as valid as my hatred. It’s true that “readers who don’t look for what can really happen and what can not really happen in real life since it is a work of fiction,” as it’s implied you yourself are, probably would care less about internal consistency and sense-making. To me, though, “It made no sense” or “nobody acted logically” are pretty far cries from compliments when it comes to any fiction, really. Inconsistency and lack of cohesion are strange things to specifically want from a book.

      Also, that’s a pretty bold claim to make about the TV show, seeing as it hasn’t even come out yet and seems to be stuck in development hell at the moment. On the other hand, after the way GoT ended… I’m sure a lot of people would call that a low bar.

  14. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s Note: I’ve removed a couple comments for insulting the post’s author (me) and another commenter. Quick note: if you’re here from the FB group and want to tell me how wrong I am, that’s fine, but please read our comments rules first.

  15. Drexel

    This whole review reads like you read the book attempting to scoff at every minor detail instead of just reading the book. You are missing really important whole pictures and much of what you have said is inaccurate.

    I’ll only pick on one spot here.. the leaks part. How did the reds not know? They did know bits of it. It does leak. This one mine is a microcosm of a much much larger world. You also learn the tactics used in this mine are not universal across all mines.

    The grays and coppers who interact with the reds also have the mentality of at least I’m not them. They are beneath me. The same crap we do in our own society.

    I’d continue reading and focus less on being contrarian.

    • Julia M.

      I disagree. I have read the book, and Darrow is completely shocked when he sees the complexity of the world above. He has no idea of what the extent of the terraforming is.

      Also, it’s hard to believe that the Grays and Coppers wouldn’t let something slip, either in anger or as an accident. Conspiracies become unwraveled quickly when there are lots of people.

  16. Sedivak

    “Left to their own devices, readers have a bad habit of assuming that a character is white by default.”

    Honest question here, as I havent studied this topic to any depth:

    Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect white readers to assume that unspecified characters are white, black readers to assume the unspecified characters are black and so on, based mostly on their own society?

    I have a hard time imagining readers from e.g. central Africa defaultly picture unspecified characters in SpecFic as white. Same with China or other places where “white” is not the culturally percieved default.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree that in certain parts of the world ‘white’ isn’t necessary the default and might not be for the readers.

      Fact is, though, that colonialism has influenced all parts of our world. China and central Africa were under white rule or at least influence themselves over time. Yet, especially the Chinese might imagine an Asian default. Or not, because they also consume a lot of western media where the Straight White Guy (as I call him) is the default hero.

      For a lot of people who consume media, ‘white’ has become a default. That doesn’t mean that there’s nobody who will have a different default (perhaps a WOC instead of the white guy, even), but that an overwhelming majority is considering the Straight White Guy the default.

  17. Radical Centrist

    I hadn’t thought about this before.

    Red Rising depicts a class system that is inherently broken, and the “Class Conflict” or revolution is about fixing it or eliminating it to replace it with something less broken. The only thing that makes the perpetuating of the broken system remotely plausible is that there is nothing else, the broken society it produces controls the entire species and it’s entire accessible range. One can only assume that the Space Roman culture was different, more functional and capable, when it achieved absolute dominance, and that the “falling into decadence” that they feared has, in fact, long since happened.

    But, real Class Conflict is about destroying class systems that are inherently functional and self-sustaining, and that have, for perhaps a very long time, produced a society capable of competing or allying effectively with (or assimilating or destroying) other societies it may have come into contact with.


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