The prologue is short and sweet, a brief glimpse at some midpoint in the story after the conflicts have been well-established. It’s an interesting flash forward, but honestly, I think the story could have gone without. Typically these types of prologues are used to hook readers before a story that requires a lot of exposition and introduction to get rolling, but I was hooked in Chapter 1 and didn’t need anything else to grab my attention. I’m not complaining though.
We start Chapter 1 with a small amount of backstory for the execution of Darrow’s father, highlighting a bit of Darrow’s thoughts and relationship to him. We learn throughout the rest of Part 1 that Darrow’s father was a peaceful revolutionary who hung for his attempt to bring justice to their totalitarian social system.
Then we jump right to the story, a thrilling scene of Darrow performing his unique job as a Helldiver, mining the precious minerals that supposedly are helping to establish a livable biosphere on the surface of Mars, where they are mining in deep underground tunnels and living in an underground society. Darrow is part of the mining and labor caste, the Reds, and is attempting to win a prize for his particular clan called the Laurel – a sort of carrot on a stick dangled in front of the impoverished Reds to motivate them. This Laurel includes extra food rations among many other nice things never seen by Reds otherwise. It smacks very strongly of Hunger Games to me, but I will suspend that judgment unless there are some other glaring similarities.
During these opening scenes, we learn a surprising amount about the caste system, the Red’s culture, Darrow’s family, and the world in general. Some of the striking things to me is the age of adulthood for these people: at 16, Darrow had already been working in the mines for three years, and has already been married for six months. His uncle, considered old, is 35 years old, and it seems standard for parents to start birthing children in their mid-teens.
We learn about the color-based caste system – Reds seeming to be the labor caste, Grays a sort of police caste, Golds the ruling elite, and a few others that aren’t fully explored. It seems very simplified and a bit “on the nose” in terms of class commentary, but unique enough to remain compelling.
After a daring stunt, Darrow believes he has won the Laurel for his group and anticipation spreads among his family. It is to be awarded that night. In the meantime, we get a very touching scene with Darrow and his wife, Eo. Brown creates a very believable strong and loving bond between Darrow and Eo in this first part, a necessary feat for the end of Part 1 to have real emotional impact.
After attending the party, it turns out that Darrow’s clan will not win the Laurel despite Darrow achieving the numbers needed. It will go to the Gamma clan, who has held it for as long as anyone remembers. It’s obvious in all ways that this is a corrupt social system, but there seems to be something specifically mysterious about why Gamma wins the Laurel no matter what.
After this crushing revelation, Eo takes Darrow to a secret area they she recently discovered: a shaft that leads to a forest garden. No Reds have ever seen such a thing, and Darrow is overwhelmed by the experience. After Darrow and Eo share a beautiful moment and make love, Eo begins to discuss with Darrow the implications of this garden existing. The Reds did not know something like this existed, and the more elite classes have failed to share it with them. That, coupled with them being denied the Laurel, sparks her desire for a revolution. We already knew that she had revolutionary thinking, realizing that the Reds were simply slaves, but it seems that she has been catalyzed to action. She urges Darrow to take up after his father, but with less peaceful means. She wants him to lead a revolution.
Darrow is very resistant to this idea, and the tension between him and Eo is palpable as they argue about it. He wants a simple life in which he can love his wife and family, but she wants to break free from their oppression. He suffers from self-doubt and sadness, feeling that he loves her more, since it seems as though he is not enough for her. It is a very poignant moment.
The tension is eased with love before they return to their underground society only to be met with the Grays. They are arrested and imprisoned for a time before they are brought up for punishment. Darrow receives his lashes, but Eo begins to sing a forbidden song as she is beaten. The penalty being death, she is immediately hung for the song. One of the most tragic details of the story so far is that such hanging does not break a person’s neck on Mars due to the lower gravity. Because of this, the ruling classes allow the person’s loved ones to ease their passing by pulling their feet and breaking their neck for them.
Darrow and his family are obviously devastated. In his grief, Darrow decides to cut down Eo’s body and take it to be buried in the forest garden – another crime punishable by death. As he is doing this, his uncle (with whom he has a very contentious relationship) gives him some “swill,” the staple alcoholic beverage, that seems to be a bit stranger and thicker than their normal swill. After Darrow accomplishes the task, he is arrested and taken to be hung as well. His uncle is the one to pull on Darrow’s feet. Thus we end Part 1 with the execution of the main character. I doubt Brown wanted to hide that something fishy is going on with Darrow’s uncle and the swill he gave him.
There does seem to be something larger at play that Darrow is unaware of. Before he was executed, Darrow’s father told Darrow that his one day he would see his uncle for who he really was. Darrow since grew to resent his uncle, but there seems to be something deeper there. Eo, given a chance to share some last words with one person, called on her sister Dio and whispered in her ear. Dio refuses to tell Darrow even as he hangs. Are all of these people aware of something that Darrow is not? And what exactly are the higher castes not telling the Reds? I suspect we’ll have more answers upon Darrow’s return from death.
Thoughts and Themes
I am initially struck with Pierce Brown’s writing style. I haven’t been an avid reader for most of my life, but compared to the books I have read, this prose is striking and skillful. It is just fascinating to read, no matter what the story is behind it. The combination of his unique prose with the first-person present perspective makes for a very unique reading experience.
He also seems to have great skill at keeping a fast pace to the story. So much has happened in these first chapters. He effectively built most of the world and social system, established some distinct and interesting characters, built up a love story quick enough to create an emotional impact once Eo was executed, and threw in some twists that show us there is a deeper level of corruption happening on this Mars colony.
There are some obvious themes on display here. The biggest and most obvious is the social aspect of the caste system. I believe that the society in this Mars colony (simply called by the characters “The Society”) would be considered a statist form of corrupt socialism. This seems to be heavily reinforced by overt propaganda (fed to the Reds on a big sort of central television in their common area) and heavy police enforcement from the Grays. The Reds believe that they are sacrificing so that other classes (who supposedly reside on Earth?) can one day inhabit Mars as a fully terraformed planet. They are told this is an honorable task, despite them being denied basic freedoms and necessities.
I won’t venture far enough to say that Brown intended this to be a commentary on our current society, but it’s hard not to draw parallels at least. There is a type of disingenuous reverence from higher classes to the lower classes that seems to serve to appease them in the poorer living conditions, something I see most prominently in wealthy politicians vying for the lower-class vote. The competition for the Laurel could be seen to be a commentary about how the higher classes encourage a competition mentality among lower classes in order to distract from their own exploitation.
I thought the discussion about song, dance, and even drunkenness was interesting. The Reds see it as a bit of freedom in the face of oppression, but a perspective like Eo’s might even see that as a manipulation. It makes me ask the question of whether it is best to find happiness and contentedness in one’s current condition or if it is better to strive to “break the chains,” as Eo would say. I think this dichotomy is expressed through the tension between Darrow and Eo. Who is right? Maybe neither. Darrow could be considered complacent, while Eo was a bit foolhardy (she did encourage Darrow to fight with the Grays when they were arrested, which would have resulted in his execution). I’ll be interested to see if Brown explores a balance here.
I am really enjoying the story so far. While it seems there are similarities to other teenager-targeted dystopian stories, it could be unique enough to stand on its own. Even if the story itself doesn’t end up being the most satisfying, I am immensely enjoying the writing style. And I’m quite eager to figure out how Darrow is brought back from the dead.