Writers: Pierce Brown & Rik Hoskin
Artist: Eli Powell Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Red Rising: Sons of Ares; Volume 1 Red Rising: Sons of Ares; Volume 2: Wrath
*This review contains spoilers for Red Rising (but none for this series).
The Sons of Ares series is the in-continuity prequel to Pierce Brown's Red Rising series, which comprises three books in the original series and two books (with one more on the way) in the second half of the series, which begins 10 years after the first ends.
While Red Rising chronicles the life and eventual leadership of Darrow of Lykos, The Sons of Ares is the origin story for the leader of the Sons of Ares, the revolutionary group that plucks Darrow from oblivion and sets him on his course to overthrow their government and class system. While the graphic novels are prequels, they do reveal the identity of the Sons' leader, Ares, which is a mystery through many of the Red Rising novels, so I recommend enjoying them after you've read the novel series (at least the first three).
In the world of Red Rising, humans have taken to space, colonizing planets across the galaxy. No matter the planet, however, the human race is split into a color caste system, where there is a distinct hierarchy that defines not only social position, but roles and rights in society. At the top are the Golds, a genetically perfect (and engineered) race of people who rule as elites, believing their place in society is cemented by their innate superiority over all others. They believe that compassion is a weakness and that allowing (and ensuring) natural selection is the only true way a society can function efficiently.
Each color has less rights than the one above it, each has a role in society that they've been genetically and (in the case of the greens) technologically modified for. From the HighColors: Silvers, Whites, and Coppers, to the Midcolors: Blues, Yellows, Greens, Violets, Oranges, Grays, to the LowColors: Browns, Obsidians, Pinks, and Reds, each color serves the the Golds in their individual ways. The Greens run their technology and their ships, the Obsidians serve as cannon fodder, the Pinks meet their sexual needs, and the Reds are split even further into highReds and lowRed, one manual laborers, the others minors who never see the skies.
The world-building is phenomenal, and the system so much more complicated than that little description. That's why it's been so hard for me to review Red Rising itself. It would go on forever, and I'd never be able to do anything other than praise Darrow's world.
In the graphic novels, you get bite-size pieces of Brown's creation. You get images of the Sons of Ares' world. From the pages of the novel and Brown's prose, you get bloodshed and spaceships, razors and wrath, and so much more.
The graphic novels follow Fitchner Au Barca, a Gold who never fit. Small and ugly, he is berated as a "Bronzie" - someone not quit Gold enough, not quite perfect enough, to fit among the children and the people of the Gold class. It follows him first to the Institute, where the Golds send their children to be culled, content for only the strongest to emerge into society as adults, even if it means losing their own children for the sake of the system.
Fitchner is never expected to survive. As a "bronzie," they plan for his death to be a lesson for the student who must kill him to earn a place at the institute. But Fitchner is underestimated his whole life, and he emerges into the institute where he is made vicious and pissed off.
For someone who doesn't normally venture into graphic novels, the pull of the Red Rising origin story was too strong for me to stay away, and despite how limited graphic novels feel compared to prose, Fitchner's story had me all the way through.
Fitchner is a compelling character, fighting against an oppressive regime that reviles him for simply not looking Gold enough.
The art in Sons of Ares is beautiful, and I felt that it fits the landscapes of the novel nicely. Set throughout space, I did sometimes struggle to keep up with where the characters were and had to flip back a couple times looking for place markers like the one in the last panel ("Agea, Mars"). But the colors... in a book where colors are castes, I found it ironic that the environments of their world harkened back to all. On Mars, the red planet, the Reds toil beneath the soil and on the ground, unable to experience their skies and their freedom. In the cities, the Golds live above, looking down through the pink haze, enjoying the yellow and orange sunrises over brown and gray streets, tinged with life in shades of green.
On the page, I found that the characters often talked in their color, their speech bubbles branded blue or green or purple according to their place in society. Some pages the speech was all gold, the accent and word choice fluctuating with the shine, other times pages were filled with red dialogue: suspicious, and angry, and even reverent in other colors. The lighting followed the same pattern: scenes about technology tinged green, murder and its neighbors on all black panels like the Obsidians the Golds use to bolster their armies.
There were moments when I doubled-back, the plight of reading too fast and missing a name or a color or a place, trying to figure out the story fast and skipping an image or a piece of dialogue. Mostly though, there were no issues. Only once in volume two was I seriously confused, trying to figure out that's not Fitchner??? when I see him in a different place, then okay well... who is that??
Even with how fast everything moves in Sons of Ares, it feels big. Detailed. While Darrow gets six novels (admittedly with quite a bit of Fitchner in them), Fitchner's origin story gets two graphic novels, and somehow... through the magic of our two writers and our artist, it feels just as complicated and well-rounded. It's partially because Red Rising set the scene beforehand, but also because this world is just so good. It's not just Fitchner's origin story. It's the origin of everything that is to come: revolution, war, autonomy, realization, heartbreak, love, death, and Darrow.
Fitchner is just so well-characterized. He's an anti-hero on the right side, unafraid to do what he needs to do. Throughout the course of both books, the topic of empathy and emotions arise again and again for Fitchner. What he went through pushes him to become this version of himself that scares the people around him, but they need him that way in order for the Sons of Ares to succeed in their goal. He is Ares, and while he refuses to mourn or feel guilt for the loss of life around him, those who are able to get close to him mourn the version of him that shrivels more and more with every loss and every responsibility heaped on his shoulders.
The graphic novels are clever and lead Fitchner from personal revenge to full-scale rebellion in the subtlest of changing angles. He rebels against the Golds and the system their put in place to subjugate others in order to maintain their bourgeois way of life. For a man who is mentally exhausted throughout the series, he manages to start a revolution so catastrophic that (it continues into a six book series and) rages for approximately forty more years.
At least. (Depending on the last Red Rising novel.)
I can't tell you how much this world pulls me in. When I first read the books, I was stunned. I didn't know what to say, and I still don't. When I try, I just ramble incoherently, trying to put so much into just a few words. Red Rising is my favorite book series, and the prequel graphic novels do not disappoint. The first one was great, the second one was even better, and as a whole, they make made that there isn't more, even though I know what's coming once Red Rising starts and they pull Darrow from his mines on Mars.
“They pushed and pushed for so long. They knew I was something dangerous, something different. Sooner or later, they had to know I would snap and come to cut them down. Or perhaps they think I'm still a child. The fools. Alexander was a child when he ruined his first nation.”
― Pierce Brown, Red Rising