Book Review: Girl in the Arena

The Premise: When Lyn’s father dies in a neo-Gladiator fight, she must (by virtue of one of the Glad bylaws) marry her father’s killer.

The rest may contain spoilers.

Gladiators from the Zliten mosaic 3
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When it first came out, a number of reviewers compared Lise Haines’s Girl in the Arena with The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I unabashedly love The Hunger Games, so when I found Girl in the Arena at my local library used book sale, I figured it must be worth fifty cents and a few weeks of my reading time.

Hrm… it’s true… kind of. The main characters are both female teens: Katniss in The Hunger Games and Lyn in Girl in the Arena. Both novels are set in a dystopic, future, geographic US. Both involve a culture or subculture where games to the death are par for the course — and of course, both protagonists have to deal with the aforementioned risk of death.

[Possible spoilers ahead.]

Still, I found Lyn’s world disappointingly less compelling than I would have liked.

Part of it, I think, is that I miss seeing the inner workings of the people in power — in this case, people in the Gladiator sports company known as Cesar’s — up close and personal. I wanted to see real, multifaceted Evil Characters (or even morally ambiguous characters) do specific and concrete Evil Things in order to develop an image of why this Glad culture is so bad. Instead, it felt like I read a lot of background about other things Cesar’s had done in the past… and then the novel’s present course of events were just sort of dropped into place by some nameless, faceless The Way Things Are. As someone who craves characters I love to hate, this vague and indirect entity doesn’t do it for me.

More than that, I’m not particularly swayed by Lyn’s character. Don’t get me wrong: Her situation is certainly sympathetic, and she’s likable enough. But there are some inexplicable plot twists and turns that result in making her seem shallow and unreal. For much of the novel, Lyn’s character changes as the plot changes rather than being the driving force for the plot. For example [BIG SPOILER HERE], Lyn is really inconsistent about how she thinks of entering the arena as an option: first it’s an option, then it’s not mentioned for a while, then it’s mentioned as a non-option, then it is an option again — and when it is the option, it’s the only option, and it turns out she’s been training for a couple of months, though the training sessions are never actually detailed.

If I were going to engage in a possible fight to the death, sure as fuck my training — whether I had sufficient skill and fitness to stand a chance of not dying — would be foremost in my mind.

It’s difficult to understand why a character would choose to do something if it’s at odds with their personality (and in the absence of meaningful context) — and the result is that Lyn feels contrived to me. And I can’t really root for a contrived character in the arena or in the pages of a book.

On the other hand, Lyn’s mom Allison is well developed and fascinating. She does react unexpectedly at times — often, in fact — but in ways that make sense according to her desires, obstacles, and pressures. For instance [LESSER SPOILERS], Allison’s basic public goal in life has been to be a good Glad wife, even to the extent of remarrying frequently. That said, inside her home, she’s also been fiercely protective of both of her children, Lyn and Lyn’s younger brother Thad. So when Allison is deeply conflicted because she wants Lyn to perform correctly according to Glad culture BUT she doesn’t want to force or pressure her daughter into a marriage that will make her feel trapped the same way Allison does now BUT she is also depending on Lyn to marry so she (or really, they — Allison via Lyn’s marriage) can support Thad. In the context of how utterly fucked up that situation is, all Allison’s decisions make sense to me, even when they’re seemingly contradictory.

Here, Allison would be the character I love to hate — except that I find her more sympathetic than I do Lyn.

Overall, this review has been tough to write. Because I so much wanted to like the idea — a young woman opting for physical strength as an outlet to gain her independence — and I still do like the idea. But in execution, this one was too haphazard and plot driven for me to really recommend. I’m not sorry I paid the fifty cents for it (particularly not when it went to a good cause) and not sorry I read it. But just the same, I’m glad I didn’t spend $8-$20 to read it new, you know?

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I'm here. I like stuff. Some other stuff, I like less.

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