Find it at your library!

Girl at War is the story of Ana Juric, who is ten years old when war overcomes her hometown of Zagreb, Croatia. The encroachment of violence and fear into her everyday life is hard for Ana to comprehend—she's used to freedom, playing with her friend Luka and running errands for her parents on her bike. But the war changes everything for Ana and her family.

Ten years later, as a college student in New York, Ana has tried to block out her past and make a normal life for herself. Over time her accent has faded, and her friends have no idea she wasn't born in New Jersey. Painful memories linger, however, and Ana won't be able to ignore them forever.

The narrative skips back and forth between these two periods in Ana's life. While the scenes of Ana's childhood, her experiences in the war, are searing and expertly written, I found the sections in which she has to come to terms with those memories and assimilate them into her settled new life even more compelling. Because of the damage she's suffered, she can't quite engage with her loved ones as fully as they would like, though it's not from lack of trying. Ana seemed immediately real to me, her stop-and-start attempts at forming bonds with other people heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.

What's also striking to me about Girl at War is how recent its events are. Everything that occurs in the book happened during my lifetime—the Yugoslavian Civil War, the destruction of the World Trade Center—and there's something jarring (to this sheltered American, anyway) about a war narrative set in such recognizable times. I've read plenty of WWII novels (haven't we all?), but none that affected me so personally. No book set in the 1940s prompts me to wonder where I was or what I was doing while the characters suffered horrible, wrenching fates. Girl at War made me ask this and quite a few other uncomfortable questions of myself.

Find it at your library!

Sixteen-year-old Darrow is a Helldiver—he spends his life underground, drilling for precious substances that will allow the surface of his planet Mars to be terraformed. Life for him and the other Reds is short and brutal, but not entirely without beauty. Darrow and his wife Eo work hard because they know it's an honor to prepare the planet for all the people who will come after them. 

Except the terraforming is already complete, and has been for years. Darrow discovers that the Reds have been lied to and used as slaves to make a life of paradise possible for the higher color castes. Eo believes they should fight against the Golds who control them, but that decision costs her her life. With his wife dead, Darrow takes up the cause and swears to avenge Eo and free the Reds.

It won't be easy. Darrow has to become a Gold, so that he can walk among them undetected and initiate the rebellion from within. Once he is transformed, he must be tested as all young Golds are tested—in a battle of wits, strength, cunning, and sheer brutality against the best the Golds have to offer.

Making the comparison between Red Rising and The Hunger Games is inevitable: both center around a group of kids put into a controlled environment and ordered to assert their dominance over each other. However, as I read Red Rising, it reminded me even more strongly of a different book: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.

Brown's main character Darrow may not be as young as Ender, but they are each savants in their way, and as a result extremely confident. They're both manipulated to a staggering degree by powerful adults who run society, and they're equally determined to defeat those who have controlled them. Both narratives spend a lot of time on how the young heroes can convince their peers to follow them and do their bidding. Along the way there are plenty of intense fight scenes—in fact, there's a lot more fighting and talking about fighting than emotion here. I would have liked to see a bit more range of feeling beyond just rage, blind rage, and all-consuming rage. It seems that when Darrow's wife dies, all his tenderness dies with her. Understandable perhaps, but it made for a flatter and less relatable central character.

Minor quibbles aside, if you enjoy Red Rising, Ender's Game should be on your list as well. You can see my recommendation for it here. It also goes without saying that Red Rising fits in perfectly with the books on our Summer of Sci-Fi list, so if you've enjoyed the books in our Challenge so far, Red Rising is not to be missed. And finally, Brown has two more books slated for future release that will complete the Red Rising trilogy—Golden Son is scheduled for publication in 2015.