Book Review: Red Rising

Hunger Games baked in Divergent Sauce, with a sprig of Gattaca on the side.

GENRE: Science Fiction: Dystopian
MARKET: Not Young Adult
CONTENT WARNING: Violence, Some Profanity, Off-Scene Rape

Red Rising 3D
I won’t say I’ve been avoiding dystopian science fiction, but I have been struggling to find time to read lately. So a friend suggested that I try Red Rising, by Pierce Brown. « The audio version is excellent, Ben. »

So I bit the bullet, bought a few extra credits on Audible, and downloaded a copy of Red Rising.

First I noticed this: there’s a big difference between the Scottish lilt of the Leviathan audiobook and the narrator’s Irish brogue early on in Red Rising, but in some ways that made the world even more interesting and real. I guess I’m a sucker for accents, if they’re well done. Even if you take accents off the table, I still enjoyed Red Rising enough to spend the last few days wandering around in a daze, cleaning, over-washing my hands, and hunting for mindless house chores as an excuse to stay in the story.

While the Red Rising concept rolls out like a grown-up merger of Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Gattaca, and Divergent, it offers an escape from those sometimes simplistic views of good versus evil. Red Rising starts in a subterranean mining colony on Mars, where “Helldivers” lead their drilling crews deep into the red planet’s crust in search of precious Helium-3, the core ingredient needed to turn the lifeless planet into a flowering oasis.

Darrow is the best “Helldiver” around. He’s got quick fingers and a sharp wit. He’s smart, capable, and driven to provide the best scraps he can for his beautiful bride, Eo. Darrow, his clan, and his caste, “The Reds,” think they’re preparing Mars for the rest of humanity, when, unbeknownst to them, humanity has already spread across the surface of Mars.

As this deception unravels for Darrow, a shady paramilitary group offers him a chance at vengeance if he will leave his clan beneath the surface and pledge himself to their cause. Because of his talents, Darrow is chosen to infiltrate the Gold caste and attend their elite « Institute. » Thrown into the deep end, Darrow struggles earn a position of influence that will help him instigate a successful rebellion.

Red Rising’s oppression feels authentic, which means that it probably isn’t appropriate for the Percy Jackson crowd. People die, and the characters, choices, and consequences feel real, albeit couched in a highly fictional setting. By the end of the book, the boundary of villainy moves beyond caste and into personal choice. It’s science fiction, but it’s more about the people than the science or technology.

I especially liked the author’s portrayal of conflicting viewpoints and priorities. Pierce Brown is unflinching in his assertion that certain choices preclude others. Darrow isn’t allowed to have his cake and eat it, too. His rational choices are some of the most poignant moments in the story.

I wanted things to move faster in first few chapters, but once that foundation was laid, there was no looking back. The twists kept me guessing about which avenue Darrow would take to achieve his goals, and his solutions often had realistic and unintended consequences.

It’s not hard science fiction, so don’t expect The Martian, but the tech is fun to think about and described only where it impacts the story. I especially liked the grav-boots and ghost cloaks, though iterations of these ideas are present in both Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and explained with an equally vague feel of “magic.”

Red Rising sits firmly in the dystopian sci-fi camp. It’s not written for younger audiences, though teenage boys will likely identify with the protagonist. If you don’t like seeing multiple sympathetic side characters meet an untimely fate, this may be one to pass on. If you don’t mind a slightly darker tale with the promise of redemption, pick up a copy of Red Rising. Darrow’s willingness to buck the establishment makes the ending especially enjoyable.

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Does this book suck?

Last week I posted about the underground market for fake-reviews (link) and the types of problems they might create for authors and readers. This week I’m interested in why real reviews are important, what makes a good review, and key elements for writing one quickly.

If this isn’t your cup of tea, check out now and come back next week for anecdotes and other fun. . .


Why review at all?
I don’t often write product reviews. Seems like a waste of time, given that most products on Amazon already have a few clever comments stacked in the margin by the time I find them. Nor do I aspire to being the next big Amazon Vine or Goodreads Guru. But occasionally I stumble across (1) something so awesome that I want to tell everybody about it anyways [Leviathan, audio] and improve its credibility in the market. Or I get (2) so many questions about a particular work (The Martian, cough, cough) that it’s easier to articulate my thoughts once and hand out a link to anyone who asks. Or I’ll write a review because (3) I think I have a unique perspective. There are other reasons, but these are mine.

What makes a good review?
By “good” reviews, I mean helpful reviews. A review that demonstrates knowledge of the product, hits the highs and lows, and reads like it was written by a normal person goes a long way for helping me get comfortable with bringing a new product home. For writers, this type of review also provides valuable market information for developing future content. An author can improve future work based on what customers have said, providing a broader ample base for market research.

What are the core components of a useful review?
Useful reviews are usually pretty easy to spot (or write) with the previous thoughts in mind. My favorites include:

  • An original tagline
  • A synopsis or demonstrated understanding of product
  • specific likes and/or dislikes
  • keywords
  • referrals and warnings

Combined with last week’s “Bot-Review” tips, these items can go a long way towards promoting worthwhile fiction, improving your favorite indie authors, and defeating the robot army. For specific real and fake review examples, check out the Sample Reviews post. I’ll update this occasionally after reading a particularly helpful review.

In the end. . .
Most writers don’t really want to read a bad review, just like no mother wants to be told her baby is ugly. But when a reviewer, editor, or critic provides actionable data, it’s much easier to swallow the bitter pill and get down to brass tacks. In addition, when you review a favorite author’s work online, you heighten their internet presence and make that work more discoverable. It’s a small thing, but that adds up big. Last week during a free promotional, DARTS held the top spot in two of its categories for several days straight. Thanks to all who have provided feedback to my writing now or in years past. It really makes a difference.


Bad Robot Reviews

It isn’t manly, but I had a good giggle last week when I stumbled across an unused line from an early draft of my 1-STAR REVIEW: ACCEPTANCE SPEECH:

STRUGGLING CRITIC: “Hard for Me to Classify…Sorry!“
BKHEWETT: “No apology necessary.  Amazon pre-classifies its inventory, so you really shouldn’t strain yourself.”

When I first wrote this, I worried my gut response was too harsh and softened things up a bit before posting. No need to be too harsh, I thought. Plenty of things to mock here without getting personal.

Turns out, I needn’t have worried.

Apparently, there is an entire ecosystem centering on fake reviews: companies that pay for them, companies (or individuals) that write them, and companies  that hunt down those fake-reviews and discredit them. This isn’t unique to Amazon. Yelp and Walmart are two other entities that cope with this problem daily. (I won’t go into the boring details, but PBS and Time will.)

In addition to the human-driven fake-reviews, sometimes entities create software programs to do this dirty work for them, scanning Amazon’s free content and making poorly written comments on select items in order to build internet presence.

But aside from being irritating and setting a bad example for our impressionable youth, bot-reviews (and other fake reviews) are a problem. Consumers use reviews to make purchasing decisions, and fake reviews lead to misinformed decision-making. In addition, retailers (and authors) generate new products based on feedback from reviews. Fraudulent feedback can lead companies (and authors) to invest resources unwisely in developing products that consumers don’t really want.

For fun and profit, here are some things to consider before using a review to make a purchasing decision or to develop content:

  • In Amazon, does the review have a “verified purchase” tag? If it doesn’t, it might mean that the reviewer wasn’t signed into when they wrote it, but the absence of this tag could also indicate duplicity. For fun, do an Amazon store search for “Uranium Ore” and scan through some of the reviews.  There’s a short one about four turtles and a rat that I found particularly interesting.
  • Does the review sound human? Are the fancy words used correctly? If not, there’s a good chance it was written by a bot. (Illegal drug use only accounts for a small percentage of poorly written reviews.)
  • Are grammar and punctuation standards used to an acceptable level? I generally accept fourth-grade as the standard of excellence for reviews, and all of my fourth graders (2004-2006) could punctuate better than my one-star reviewer. If it doesn’t meet that standard, it might be a bot.
  • Is the review really short, or really vague? Both brevity and ambiguity are a bot’s best camouflage, given the previous indicators. A bot-review will often use language that might apply to any number of books, or products. « I’m so glad I got this. »
  • Did your mom write it? If so, trust it. (Unless it exhibits previously-mentioned characteristics. . .)

So that laughably poor one-star review probably wasn’t legit, and I went through all that trouble to tease it. . . . On a lighter note, my 1-star (and 2-star) reviews are down 100% for RINGS, probably because I never offered it for free. I guess bots can’t afford the pricier fantasy and science-fiction titles.

But that brings me to my next point: What makes a good review?

To be continued. . .


Bad Robot Reviews4


GENRE:      Steampunk
MARKET:    Young Adult
RATING:     10 Genetically-Modified Airships out of 10
SWEAROMETER:  World-Specific. Beautifully done.


I’ve been avoiding the steampunk genre for a long time, I’ll admit. The concept of grafting future technology into Victorian-esque settings has always seemed a bit . . . well, silly. Responding to a few pointed recommendations, I finally picked up an audio copy of Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld.

It caught me completely by surprise, and I enjoyed every moment of it. The book is about the Great War, but the Central powers wield imaginative machinery and the Allied powers meddle in massive genetically-engineered “beasties.”

The story maintains a lively pace, alternating  viewpoints between Aleksandar, an immature Austrian prince running from his political enemies after his father’s assassination, and Deryn Sharp, an exuberant girl who has joined the Royal British (air) Navy disguised as a boy. The exposition unfolds naturally amid the action, and the characters and setting are vividly rendered. I could smell the smoking flares and machine oil in Alek’s Stormwalker. I could feel the heartbeat of Deryn’s living airship, the Leviathan, as it lumbers through a strafing run, bleeding hydrogen. I could see the massive land dreadnoughts churning the snow beneath them and hear the thunder of their cannons. And the tension only heightens when these two worlds collide and Alek and Deryn meet for the first time. (Not to be forgotten, Westerfeld’s world-appropriate swearing  is spot-on. It fits, is fun for adults, and makes the kids laugh too.)

Leviathan is an experience. The whole book is alive. Perhaps it’s Alan Cumming’s Scottish accent: his spirited performance made me laugh and rewind for the exceptionally good bits. I’ve heard the print version doesn’t disappoint, either.  It may not have clever Scottish, English, and Austrian (German) accents, but it does have fabulous illustrations.

Read Leviathan if you like upbeat, quick-paced storytelling and hilarious dialogue. Read it if you’re ready for a change from classic science fiction. Start here if you’re looking for a primer on steampunk but haven’t had the nerves to pull one off the library shelf yet.

Skip Leviathan if genetic manipulation gives you the willies, or you’re looking for something with a dark, depressing ending.

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“M. Darcy, puis-je emprunter votre épée elfique?”

Aragorn and Liz

J’ai aimé beaucoup de livres au cours des trois dernières décennies. Des livres sur les  dragons. Des livres sur les navettes spatiales. Des livres sur les dragons et les navettes spatiales. Mais 2014 a été une année phare: j’ai lu mon premier roman de Jane Austen. Je dis « lu », mais je l’ai plutôt « écouté » en  livre audio.

Je me rends compte que ça ne compte peut-être pas comme « lire » pour les puristes, quelque soit le nombre de fois que je l’ai réécouté en allant au boulot. C’est noté, Mon exemplaire d’Orgueil et préjugés n’est pas rempli de notes en marge comme le sont mes exemplaires de  Hunger Games ou du Hobbit.  Mais ce qui compte, c’est à quel point je l’ai aimé, tout en réalisant que Orgueil et préjugés a beaucoup en commun avec Le Seigneur des anneaux

Au CP, j’ai appris à lire avant tout parce que (1) nous n’avions pas de télé et (2) parce qu’à la bibliothèque, j’ai vu Smaug descendre sur Lacville avec son haleine enflammée pendant la séance de film et que je voulais recréer cet instant-là. (Il n’y a pas de scènes plus accrocheuses dans tout le royaume de Tolkien que les prières murmurées de Bard l’archer à la flèche noire et son ultime et héroïque tir.)

J’ai donc appris à lire et j’ai dégoté un exemplaire du Hobbit. Aujourd’hui nous avons  Riordan, Mull, Sanderson et Rowling, mais à l’époque, on avait Tolkien. Et peut-être Terry Brooks. Tolkien est devenu l’étalon d’après lequel je mesurais la littérature. Et c’est encore le cas, lorsque ceci est adapté ou… rigolo. Et il y a certainement des comparaisons amusantes à faire:

Prenez Sauron, un comploteur qui se mêle à tout et des yeux et des oreilles à travers toute la Terre du Milieu. Son œil enflammé, son hostilité surnaturelle et son aveuglement épique font de lui l’antagoniste principal, surtout comme il n’arrête pas d’envoyer ses minions pour « décourager » les héros. Lady Catherine De Bourgh dans Orgueil et préjugés est un peu comme Sauron. Tandis que Sauron règne avec une poignée de fer, Lady Catherine se sert de la structure sociale contemporaine et de l’étroitesse d’esprit de ses  minions pour réaliser ses desseins. Sa manipulation insidieuse de son entourage, ainsi que la séduction de M. Collins, la dépeignent comme un personnage sauronique. Aussi bien  Catherine que Sauron interviennent rarement de manière directe, mais lorsque c’est le cas, c’est avec vent et furie.

Gandalf n’est peut-être pas M. Bennet, mais c’est un personnage paternel face à des enfants effrontés et imprévisibles, et il est bien capable de graves omissions. Combien de temps lui a-t-il fallu pour réaliser que Bilbo avait l’anneau unique?  L’un comme l’autre laisse bien trop souvent ses enfants se débrouiller seuls. Dans le cas de Gandalf, c’est par nécessité. Il doit protéger toute la Terre du Milieu. Et en plus, il a une épée. Prends ça, Bennet.

Les deux histoires dépendent d’une intrigue. Dans le cas des Bennet, c’est une méchante substitution qui fait passer l’héritage des Bennet par la lignée masculine et échappe donc aux filles de M. Bennet, impliquant la quête nécessaire des filles pour trouver des maris acceptables. La substitution met aussi un prix à la décision d’Elizabeth de ne pas épouser  Collins, preuve de son engagement à ses principes.

Dans Le Seigneur des anneaux, l’Anneau unique galvanise l’action, forçant les personnages à laisser leur existence confortable et s’aventurer dans l’inconnu. Il représente également une épreuve du caractère et une analogie pour ce défaut favori que nous entretenons tous, au lieu de le jeter dans notre usine à détruire les défauts.

La substitution fait son boulot dans Orgueil et préjugés sans faire dévier l’attention sur le développement des personnages. L’Anneau, un peu moins. Il fait sans cesse porter l’attention sur lui-même sans rien faire à part passer de main en main aux mauvais moments.

Blessé et incompris, M. Darcy ne peut être que Aragorn.Sa première apparition est décidément celle d’un méchant et la plupart des personnages, surtout les vilains, ont peur de lui dans tout le roman. Ils sont tous les deux calmes, réservés et intelligents. Ils sont tous les deux beaux, talentueux et assez rétifs. Surtout, ils sont bons à suivre, mener et sortir les gens de l’embarras. Mais Aragorn a le prénom le plus cool, et il a aussi une épée, et il se sert des deux.

Pour être juste, je ne doute pas un instant que M. Fitzwilliam Darcy saurait se servir d’une épée elfique s’il en avait l’occasion. Et le développement du personnage de Darcy s’opère de manière magistrale. Le lecteur le voit surmonter son orgueil d’aristocrate et son amour pour Elizabeth alors que Tolkien évoque à peine le combat d’Aragorn contre son droit de naissance et son amour pour Arwen.

Elizabeth Bennet ressemble le plus à Eowyn, qui craint de « rester derrière des barreaux jusqu’à ce que l’usure et l’âge les acceptent et que toute forme de courage ait disparu irrévocablement. »

Les deux femmes font preuve de force de caractère bien au-dessus de leurs compatriotes. Elles choisissent leurs destinées sans capituler et sans hésitation, elles conservent leur intégrité. Eowyn massacre le serviteur principal de Sauron avec une lame des elfes, tandis qu’Elizabeth dissèque les questionnements et les menaces de Catherine De Bourgh avec la précision d’un scalpel.

Il y a d’autres similitudes mais je vais m’arrêter ici. (Les militaires d’Orgueil et préjugés n’en font pas partie. Leur seul fonction est de fournir des partenaires de danse aux plus jeunes sœurs Bennet.)

Si vous n’avez pas lu Le Seigneur des anneaux ou Orgueil et préjugés, je recommande les deux, éventuellement en livre audio pendant un long voyage. Ce sont deux remarquables exemples de la littérature anglaise.

La semaine prochaine: Raison et sentiment croise Full Metal Jacket.

Je rigole.