Throughout the process of writing this post, I realized how much easier it is to write reviews for books you don’t like. I read these two books in the middle of March, devouring them in less than two days each, and I was absolutely over the moon for them both. There’s a lot more to talk about when books let me down, but I’m super excited by how great these two stories are, so here we go!
Red Rising –– Pierce Brown
Talk about your pleasant surprises! This book was a total home run for me. It’s like Harry Potter meets Ender’s Game. There’s a dystopian space society featuring a caste system, high powered humans, stunning technology, an undercover rebel, and fierce competitions pitting teens against each other in fights to the death. It’s brilliant. It’s stark and gritty and strategic and it was so much more than I was expecting (I bought a hard copy after reading an e-book version, so you know it’s real). It also introduced a character by the name of Sevro who is quickly on his way to becoming one of my favorite male characters of all time.
What worked for me: I seem to have been reading a lot of books lately featuring young MCs, and it doesn’t always come across as wholly believable (looking at you, Six of Crows). But for the first time in a long time, the youth of the characters feels legitimate. We’re thrown into this group of entitled 16 and 17 year olds and suddenly we’re surrounded by arrogance, emotion, posturing, and unbridled rage. Vendettas arise, lines are crossed, and there’s no shortage of angst. These teenagers are out in a wilderness and are engaging in the most cutthroat game of Capture the Flag imaginable. Some of the characters find themselves stepping up to the responsibility and leading, while others devolve into their basest selves. It’s all very Lord of the Flies and it totally works.
I also appreciated the integration of female characters as a natural and powerful presence. Even though the MC is a male, he surrounds himself with strong women, and at one point, his two military lieutenants are both young women. It brought to mind the part of Black Panther where T’challa was told to surround himself with people he trusted and he chose strong and brilliant women. The ruler of the entire galaxy is a women, and the familial structures alternate between patriarchal and matriarchal. The representation left a bit to be desired, but overall, the female characters were strong, varied, and refreshing.
The writing style is a stellar example of stylistic choices heightening the mood of the story itself. I touched on this way back when I wrote my Annihilation review and referenced the mind-boggling House of Leaves as a benchmark. Red Rising features a crisp, almost stark, writing style that totally plays up the militaristic tone of the entire plot. Everything is written in a clinical and expository nature, which outlines in no uncertain terms what is happening, what is being felt, and what is being planned. The entire book revolves around strategy, and the briskly clear-cut writing styles emphasizes that in the best kind of way.
What didn’t work for me: Although the female leads were solid, Brown does have a bad habit of basing the majority of derogatory comments on feminine traits (“he cried like a girl”/”they flaunt their weapons like girls with new toys”/”you sound like a girl, I thought you were tough”). For a world set centuries in the future and filled with powerful women, the jabs feel out of place and too reflective of our current misogynistic society.
I think the only other thing that brought me any frustration was the litany of house and family names. It feels very George R.R. Martin-esque in some spots, and in a book filled with planets, moons, and caste titles, the huge amount of characters and their allegiances can be a bit tricky to keep track of. Some of the houses have the same names as the planets, and different families have loyalties to one or the other or both.
Overall rating: Honestly, I think I would give it 9 out of 10 stars. It’s a super enjoyable and immersive read, and I’m so excited to dive into the rest of the trilogy. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s 11 reasons why you absolutely should.
Ready Player One — Ernest Cline
Ready Player One quickly became one of my favorite books back when I first read it in 2015. It came as a recommendation from a friend, and while I rarely end up enjoying recommendations, I could instantly tell something was special about this one. Over the years, it has become my go-to recommendation for people who don’t really like to read, especially if those people are 20-something year old males. Although I have less than zero interest in seeing the upcoming movie (because boooo, adpations), I saw the trailer in theaters and realized I was sorely overdue for a re-read. I blazed through the book in a weekend– which might have been even faster than I devoured it the first time– and to my surprise, the book totally holds up.
What worked for me: Like Red Rising, the writing style in the book plays up some of the best aspects of the story. Ready Player One takes place almost entirely in an online virtual reality world, and Cline creates this world for the readers. He’s the kind of writer that I could (probably) be if I wasn’t extremely lazy/my mind didn’t go so much faster than my words. His attention to detail is utterly flooring, and all of that hyper-detail helps to make the reader feel like they’re in VR as well. It’s a stroke of genius on Cline’s part, because he doesn’t just say that everything in the online world is perfectly rendered, he actually takes the time to show us that it is. It’s as immersive as writing gets, and for a story about virtual reality, it couldn’t have been more perfectly executed.
Wade, the main character, has a lingering aura of wish fulfillment, but overall, he’s a pretty splendid MC, especially for a nerdy white male. He’s relatable and honest, respectful and brilliant. I knew he was a likeable character when he opens his locker and his only decoration is a picture of Princess Leia posing with a blaster pistol. Anyone who doesn’t choose Leia in her slave bikini is okay in my book.
What didn’t work for me: Like I mentioned above, the wish fulfillment can be a bit heavy-handed in a few spots. Although Wade has spent his entire life in the online world, his incredible hacking abilities and memory retention can feel a wee bit far-fetched. However, there is no doubt that he also has shortcomings in this regard, which become obvious when he doesn’t make a few connections for the second key.
Overall rating: Although this is one of my favorite storylines of all time, there are a few gratuitous plot points that I find pretty difficult to ignore. For this reason, I would give it a solid 7.7 out of 10. For a far more intellectual reaction to Ready Player One, I highly recommend Michael Moreci’s think piece.