Girl in the Arena
by Lise Haines
336pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 6/10
Amazon Rating: 3.3/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.23/5
Goodreads Rating: 2.99/5

Book Description:

During the week, Lyn lives in a big house in Cambridge and hangs out with friends in Harvard Square. But over the weekend, she cheers her father on as he gears up for neo-gladiator competition-a high-profile televised blood sport that rivals the NFL. Lyn’s father is the top player in the league, and the paparazzi that have always swarmed him have started to dog Lyn’s every move. All this fame comes with another price—Lyn’s family lives with the constant presence of violence, uncertainty, and a strict cultural code set by the Gladiator Sports Association. When a skilled young fighter slays Lyn’s father, the GSA imposes an unthinkable sentence—Lyn must marry her father’s murderer. Though her mother has made a career out of marrying into Glad culture, Lyn is prepared to do whatever it takes to claim her independence. Even if it means going into the arena herself.

Lise Haines’ debut novel, a dark satire for our time, is a mesmerizing look at a modern world addicted to violence, fame, and greed—a world eerily close to our own.

Girl in the Arena was not exactly what I had been expecting based on the title and my copy’s back cover description, which mainly focuses on Lyn facing off against her father’s killer in a fight to the death. Though there is violence (also, content warning for suicide), it’s not as much about fighting or even this one particular match as it is the messed-up culture the Gladiator Sports Association (GSA) has created—how it entraps people with its rules, making it difficult for gladiators and their families to escape—and Lyn’s dedication to finding a way out of doing as the GSA commands. Personally, I found reading about how this affected Lyn and her family far more compelling than if it had been primarily about gladiator competitions, and this is one of the novel’s best qualities, along with the unpredictability of the story.

The characters were not exactly what I had been expecting from a book with “One night only! Fight to the Death!” emblazoned across its back cover, either. Lyn is a pacifist who does not want to be a gladiator wife, especially after seeing what her mother has gone through as one, and dreams of leaving this whole lifestyle behind—but she becomes further drawn into it due to financial difficulty and the GSA’s bylaws, which state she needs to marry the man who slew her father in the arena. This gladiator, who goes by the rather unfortunate name of Uber, is basically an awkward, muscly cinnamon roll. He never wanted to fight or kill Lyn’s father, and he would also be happy to leave the gladiator life behind.

Although this is not a book that delves deeply into characterization, these characters are likable, and Lyn’s determination and relationships with her family are vividly drawn. Girl in the Arena also does a good job of making Lyn’s various difficulties palpable—not just those caused by the violence of the arena and the GSA’s rules, but also that of being a celebrity constantly in the public eye and that of making connections with people who are not immersed in gladiator culture.

It’s a novel with straightforward writing that cuts right to the point without pausing for pretty phrasing. This usually makes it easy to read through quickly, but I did have some problems with the way the dialogue was formatted: instead of using quotation marks, there was a dash preceding spoken text. As far as I’m concerned, quotation marks do their job, and I found this style distracting and occasionally confusing.

Girl in the Arena didn’t have the amount of depth or the type of beautiful prose that tends to make a book memorable to me. That said, I did appreciate that its plot did not follow a traditional course and its exploration of the various forms of destruction caused by the GSA and gladiator culture—and those combined with Lyn and Uber’s dynamic made it a fun book to read once (even if I can’t type the name “Uber” without cringing).

My Rating: 6/10

Where I got my reading copy: It was a book on my wish list that I received as a Christmas gift.

Book Description:

A rising star in the weightless combat sport of zeroboxing, Carr “the Raptor” Luka dreams of winning the championship title. Recognizing his talent, the Zero Gravity Fighting Association assigns Risha, an ambitious and beautiful Martian colonist, to be his brandhelm—a personal marketing strategist. It isn’t long before she’s made Carr into a popular celebrity and stolen his heart along the way.

As his fame grows, Carr becomes an inspirational hero on Earth, a once-great planet that’s fallen into the shadow of its more prosperous colonies. But when Carr discovers a far-reaching criminal scheme, he becomes the keeper of a devastating secret. Not only will his choices put everything he cares about in jeopardy, but they may also spill the violence from the sports arena into the solar system.

Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee’s debut Andre Norton Award–nominated novel, is set in a future version of our galaxy in which human habitation has spread to the Moon and Mars. Zeroboxing (zero gravity fighting) has become a popular sport primarily dominated by Martians since they do not have restrictive rules governing genetic engineering. Although basic modifications ensuring good health and eyesight are standard on Earth, enhancements that would make someone extraordinary are not allowed, making it impossible for the best athletes from Earth to compete on the same level as Mars’ best. Then seventeen-year-old Carr Luka of Earth begins winning nearly every one of his matches, becoming enough of a name to be the center of a large marketing campaign promoting zeroboxing on his home planet, which could open the way for more competition between athletes from Earth and Mars—but then Carr learns of a conspiracy that threatens all he holds dear…

This novel is largely a sports story with a crime/suspense element and touches on life as a celebrity, marketing, and ethics related to genetic engineering. Although I’m not a fan of boxing or similar athletic activities, I thought the mechanics of zeroboxing and the fights were the parts of the book that were done best, and everything else was underwhelming. The bits about marketing, celebrity, genetic engineering, and the rift between Earth and Mars were the most compelling to me but were not explored in depth; the characters were one dimensional; the romance between Carr and his marketing strategist was dull as one that seemed to be based more on physical attractiveness than personal connection; and the ending was abrupt since it concluded without showing the aftermath.

Zeroboxer may appeal more to fans of boxing or similar sports and/or those somewhat new to science fiction, but it was an average book for me personally: one I could finish without much of a problem, but neither one that kept me eagerly turning the pages nor one that I found particularly memorable or engaging.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

Read an Excerpt from Zeroboxer