Powerful. This is probably the best word with which to define this surprising book: not so much for the story itself, or the motivations that drive the main character – these are tropes I’ve encountered before – but for the way the tale is told. The language is stark, almost pared down to essentials, and yet it manages to convey a great deal of emotion, even in its deceptively remote way.
But let’s proceed with order: in the bowels of Mars live the Reds – miners who drill for Helium-3, the substance that will render the planet’s terraforming possible. They live harsh, brutally short lives, but are told repeatedly that their sacrifice will pave the way for future generations – unfortunately it’s all a lie, as Darrow, the main character, discovers in the worst possible way. Mars has been terraformed for generations, and the privileged live on the surface in comfort while others are enslaved in darkness – both real and metaphorical.
On the wake of personal tragedy, Darrow is recruited by a rebel group to impersonate a Gold – the higher caste in a rigidly structured society – and to try and break the cycle of slavery and lies from within the system.
Rage and hatred are Darrow’s main motivators, for the losses he had to endure, for the lies he was fed all his life, and these emotions drive him over the obstacles he has to overcome. Yet his anger and loathing are not always focused toward the outside, because he realizes soon enough that to blend in with his enemy he has to become that enemy as well – speak like them, act like them, even think like them. As he forges ahead toward his goal, he feels the growing distance between his past, his old self, and the person he needs to become. And he despises that person as much as he despises the pampered exploiters among whom he’s gone to live.
As if that were not enough, in time he finds out that some of them are capable of friendship and loyalty just as much as his own people down below, and this further unbalances his perceptions.
For these very reasons I found Darrow’s character quite unusual: he’s not a standard hero, he’s not driven by noble ideals – at the beginning he wants vengeance, pure and simple, and he does shift his focus only through prolonged contact with the above-ground world and the realization that even the Golds’ path to power is as crooked as the rules enforced on the Reds. By the end of this first book (yes, it’s a trilogy) Darrow feels more like a player in the power game he’s been called to play, and less of a tool – one wonders of course how much of the old Darrow still survives after the experiences he’s gone through, and what other challenges will wait down the line. It will be an interesting journey indeed.
Much as I liked this book, I have to admit it’s not immune from some failings: the central part does sag a little, slowing down from the tight pace with which the story began, while there’s not enough time (in my opinion) devoted to Darrow’s transformation into a Gold, one of the elite. I read some comments about the almost ridiculous ease with which a simple, uncouth miner is morphed into one of the ruling class, and I tend to agree with them: the author almost breezes over the long, often excruciating process that involves genetic manipulation and surgery as well as intense schooling, as if he were in a hurry to get to the field trials that, on the other hand, take too much page space.
Despite this blemish, the story is compelling and enjoyable, and kept me on edge for much of its length. One of the best features comes from the author’s very light hand with graphic violence: since the theme is unavoidable, considering the subject matter, I applaud Mr. Brown’s choice to mention it without indulging in gory details. I’m looking forward to his next book.
My rating: 7.5/10