Title: Girl in the Arena
Author: Lise Hines
Genre: Dystopia, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult
Publication Date: October 2009
Hardcover: 336 pages
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: A dystopian, slightly futuristic gladiator-to-the-death novel with a female protagonist? The question should be, why did it take me so long to read this book. This has “Thea-crack” written all over it.
Summary: (from amazon.com)
It’s a fight to the death—on live TV—when a gladiator’s daughter steps into the arena
Lyn is a neo-gladiator’s daughter, through and through. Her mother has made a career out of marrying into the high-profile world of televised blood sport, and the rules of the Gladiator Sports Association are second nature to their family. Always lend ineffable confidence to the gladiator. Remind him constantly of his victories. And most importantly: Never leave the stadium when your father is dying. The rules help the family survive, but rules—and the GSA—can also turn against you. When a gifted young fighter kills Lyn’s seventh father, he also captures Lyn’s dowry bracelet, which means she must marry him… For fans of The Hunger Games and Fight Club, Lise Haines’ debut novel is a mesmerizing look at a world addicted to violence—a modern world that’s disturbingly easy to imagine.
I’ve been in a bit of a reading rut lately. It’s not so much that I have been reading horrendously bad books recently; rather, it’s that I have been lukewarm and strangely apathetic towards the books I have been reading of late. I needed something different to save me from the sea of indifference, and I was betting on Girl in the Arena to do the trick (especially after rave reviews like this one from Angie started popping up online). And wouldn’t you know it? Girl in the Arena was EVERYTHING I wanted, and more.
I loved this book.
Not only does Ms. Haines employ a bold, effective writing style refreshingly different from anything else on the YA market, but the story itself is phenomenal, with one of the finest heroines I have had the pleasure of reading all year. It’s also a scathing look at our society of violence, greed and instant gratification, and an effective cautionary parable for present day America.
For all of her life, Lyn has lived as a neo-Gladiator’s daughter, following the Gladiator Sports Association’s (GSA’s) stringent bylaws as best she can. Her mother, Allison, prides herself on her occupation as a Glad wife – that is, a perpetual bride to neo-Gladiators. Allison brags that Lyn is the daughter of seven Gladiators, the maximum number of times a Glad wife can marry according to the bylaws. But Lyn is dissatisfied with her mother and the life that she is forced to live as a Glad daughter – instead of eagerly planning her future as a Glad wife, she yearns for a way out of the game, much to her mother’s chagrin. Though Lyn hasn’t gotten along with her prior fathers too well, her seventh, an incredibly popular neo-Gladiator named Tommy, is someone she actually loves – which makes her all the more scared of Tommy’s upcoming fight against the much younger and very promising fighter named Uber. To make matters worse, Lyn’s autistic and oddly prophetic younger brother, Thad, makes a chilling prediction that Tommy will die, and nervous, Lyn gives Tommy her dowry bracelet for good luck.
When the fight arrives, Tommy is slain quickly in the arena by the monstrously powerful Uber while Lyn, Thad and Allison are forced to watch on. For Allison, this means the end of married life – per the GSA bylaws, she’s forbidden from marrying any other Glad, and if she wants to keep the insurance money from Tommy’s death and their family home & assets, she cannot marry anyone outside of the Glad world either. For Thad, it means he has lost the only father that truly cared for him, though he’s confused about what has happened. For Lyn, though, things are infinitely worse – because in the arena, right after killing her father, Uber picks a trophy from his corpse. Lyn’s dowry bracelet. Per the GSA guidelines, only a girl’s father and her husband can touch her dowry bracelet – and Uber’s innocent mistake means that now he and Lyn are betrothed. Threatened by Caesar’s Inc. (the corporate entity behind the GSA) with her family’s destitution and ruin, Lyn is forced with the reality of marrying her father’s murderer…unless she can find another way to placate Caesar’s and save her family.
I have to admit that I was expecting quite a different book when I started Girl in the Arena. From the title, the jacket blurb and the cover, I was a bit wary that the book would be about some unbelievable badass female neo-Gladiator – but that’s not what Girl in the Arena is about at all. Lyn doesn’t even step into the Arena as a fighter until the very end of the book, as a measure of last resort, which was an incredible relief to me. There’s a tendency to create these Super!Badass!Warrior! heroines sometimes, which is cool and all – but sometimes it’s a lot more engaging to have a heroine that isn’t naturally gifted with the ability to blow all the competition away. In Lyn’s case, were she some unparalleled kick-ass chick whom after only a few scant months of training could take down men twice her size (who have been groomed as gladiators for their entire lives), well, let’s just say that would be quite a fish to swallow. Instead, Lyn’s story is much more emotion-driven, much more focused on her inability to do anything to fight a corrupt and bloodthirsty system from which there seems to be no escape. Though there is a good share of violence in the arena scenes, Girl in the Arena is not so much about fighting or action, as, say The Hunger Games is. Rather, this novel is more introspective, a dystopian anti-corporation thriller, if you will (more along the lines of a younger Blade Runner).
The most impressive thing, to me, about Girl in the Arena was how very plausible everything seemed. Ms. Haines looks not at some distant future society trying to recover after some apocalyptic/socio-economic collapse – rather, she takes the present day United States and makes a few significant embellishments. The GSA itself feels very familiar – a sort of cross between the Ultimate Fighting Championship (the UFC) and the World Wrestling Entertainment/Federation (WWE). The prologue, Lyn’s opening report on the history of the GSA, explains in a shockingly realistic way that corporate-sanctioned to-the-death fighting could occur – and it really makes one think. I, for one, love watching fights. Boxing, UFC, you name it, I’m a fan. And Girl in the Arena makes me question this inherent bloodthirst. Not to say that Ms. Haines uses her novel to pass judgement on fighters – it’s actually quite the opposite. As Lyn, her family and her friends are all entrenched in the Glad lifestyle, she doesn’t view the neo-Gladiators as wasting their lives or as some barbaric, blooddrenched ritual. There’s honor to be found in the Arena, and I was really, really pleased to see that Ms. Haines managed to convey this appreciation and balance (saving what easily could have been a preachy, one-dimensional feeling novel).
So far as technicalities of plotting and character go, what can I say? Ms. Haines has a gift for writing. The story is paced excellently without a single hitch. The writing itself is wonderfully different, as Ms. Haines uses a unique abbreviation style (no quotation marks for dialogue, instead employing dashes) and perfunctory sentences for Lyn’s narrative. Though a bit strange at first, I loved the brisk feel this style gave Lyn’s voice. As a heroine, Lyn is exquisite. She’s smart, but not snobby or overbearing; she has a load to carry with her manic depressive mother and autistic younger brother, but she manages to keep it together for her family’s sake; she’s pretty, but not fussy about it (in fact, for most of the novel, she has a shaved, stitched head). She’s incapable of bullshit, and she’s one tough cookie – though she’s not some badass automaton. I loved her. I loved her emotional struggles, I loved how fair she was when it came to evaluating her choices and making decisions. I loved Lyn.
What else can I say about Girl in the Arena? This is a book to be bought, to be read, to be remembered. I loved it wholeheartedly, and I recommend it to everyone. Ms. Haines has left her mark, and I cannot wait to read more from this promising author.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the fight between Tommy and Uber:
Uber enters the arena first to thundering applause. I’ve read in Sword and Shield that he rubs a quart of Glow on his skin before a match. With the black lights that rim the stadium, as soon as he starts to overheat it will look as if that peacock green sweat is pouring out of him like in those sports drink commercials.
My brother, Thad, tugs at me until I get a Freeway bar from my sack and peel back the wrapper for him. They make my mind too speedy and I think it would be easy to go into road rage even if you weren’t driving, but with Thad, they soothe him. His whole sense of time and space has always been jumbled up. Sometimes I think he’s living at the speed of light, only I can’t see it.
Uber checks his helmet repeatedly and then crosses himself.
When Tommy, our stepfather, steps into the arena, all of us stand and flood the air with sound. Everyone loves Tommy.
I see he’s chosen the short sword today. But he still looks off to me. There’s almost no swagger as he walks into the center of the arena and raises his arms.
—Tommy looks good, I say to Allison.
—Do you think so? our mother shouts back above the cheering.
—He’s all over this, I say.
—I’ve heard Uber wasn’t born in to the Helmet Wearers, she informs me.
Allison likes to make a point of these things. Born Ins are first- generation Glads, their relatives and descendents. Tommy’s a Born In. It’s a point of pride. I don’t know if Uber’s a gladiator born and bred but the blog Desperate Glad says: He lights up the game. And the Chicago Tribune says: He’s money in the treasury.
Time feels sped up as the cheers build. Tommy and Uber start to circle. I don’t know why, but I thought they would take longer to size each other up, that time would stretch out on this one. Competitions often feel slow to me, especially at the beginning.
Tommy slams his shield against Uber’s. They deliver several blows in succession, each one striking the other’s shield or sword, each sound enlarged by the sound system and the roar of the arena. I want to look away, but today I can’t.
Tommy knocks Uber’s shield so hard it flies out of his hand. As Uber moves to pick it up, Tommy makes several small slices up Uber’s left arm. That’s Tommy’s signature as he’s warming up, to make the small cuts. The crowd loves this. They chant, —Tommy, Tommy.
But then in one move, Uber suddenly grabs his shield, turns, and strikes Tommy with his long sword. When I open my eyes I see he’s practically taken off Tommy’s left kneecap.There’s blood everywhere, spurting and soaking into the sand. Before Tommy can right himself, Uber slices him across his stomach. Thank God that one’s a shallow cut.
—Why isn’t he fighting back? Allison asks.
—He’s waiting for the right moment, I say, though I’m wondering the same thing.
Thad’s trying to say something now, his mouth full of thick, sped-up chocolate. Everything about him looks urgent as I glance over. I don’t know if he understands what’s going on with Tommy, if he understands fully, or if this is about something else, because thoughts are often urgent with Thad. I kiss his forehead. I’m trying not to cry, and I tell him to chew slowly, and to wait, just wait. I tell him everything is going to be okay.
A low rolling chant starts as Uber seems to be giving Tommy time to concede, to pull himself together—I’m not sure what. I’d say this is not the kind of calm you want. If I were a forecaster, I’d say we’re in earthquake weather, just before it hits.
When Thad can’t take another moment of stillness, he stands in his chair and starts to leap toward Allison, jumping up and down. As I try to restrain Thad, I look at his big eyes, his soft square face, and I imagine how much would die with Tommy. Maybe everything, everything as we know it. Then Thad gets quiet again and slumps back into his seat. I want to take his hand and run away with him but this is one of the first bylaws I was taught; number 96:
Never leave the stadium when your father is dying.
So I’m here when Uber raises his sword suddenly and slices off Tommy’s right hand cleanly at the wrist joint.
I’m out of my seat, standing in the bleachers as his hand drops to the sandy floor like a chicken wing into flour. Tommy’s bludgeon flies and the bracelet I lent him for good luck launches from his arm and rolls to a stop at Uber’s black athletic shoes.
Sixty thousand fans rise to their feet shouting:
For a moment Tommy stands there in his blood- drenched Nikes as if he’s thinking over his next move. Of course the point, the whole point, of Glad existence is to die well. And I know Tommy G. is going to die well when it’s his time. But I’m looking at Allison now, looking for something in Allison’s face to say he’ll pull through this one. That the ambulance will scoop him up and get him to the hospital in time. I stare into Allison’s mirrored sunglasses, where I see Tommy suddenly arch back. His chain- mail guard swings out from his hips and lashes his groin. His legs buckle, and his body drops in both halves of her.
Tommy dies right there in Allison’s lenses.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: YA Dystopian Fiction – one of my all time favorite subgenres, as I’m sure any regular reader of ours here on The Book Smugglers knows! If you liked Girl in the Arena, and you want something else to satiate your hunger for dystopian futures, you might want to check out some of these posts for more.
And, while you’re at it, why don’t you check out this…bizarre…but fun book trailer:
Verdict: Girl in the Arena is one for the keeper shelf; one that has earned all the raves it has received; one that deserves its praises to be shouted from the mountaintops. A fabulous book, and on the shortlist for one of my favorite reads of 2009.
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima