Thursday, June 4, 2009

Review: The Girl in the Arena by Lise Haines

When I was wandering the floor at BEA last weekend, I was passing the Bloomsbury booth when I heard one of the workers handing a galley to another attendee saying "This is for Hunger Games fans." I stopped in my tracks and quickly got my own galley of The Girl in the Arena, excited for the possibility of something to tide me over between Catching Fire and whatever the next book is (does anyone know what the third one will be called?)

I first grew suspicious over whether I would actually enjoy the book when I noticed the back cover says that not only is it for fans of The Hunger Games, but Fight Club as well. Granted, I've never read Fight Club, but I've seen the movie and Wikipedia'd the novel, and it really seems like the only thing it has in common with Hunger Games is people beating the crap out of each other. So what on earth would Girl in the Arena have in common with my beloved Hunger Games?

Turns out it's mostly the girl-going-to-fight-to-the-death plot.

The Girl in the Arena presents a bit of alternate history - after losing his son in an attempt to dodge the draft in Vietnam, a man decides to re-create the ancient sport of gladiators in order to give young men (and originally it was all men, though eventually women were allowed some participation) a healthy outlet for their aggression. Eventually he hopes that the gladiator sport will be so successful it will remove our need for armies and war. (This whole thing never quite made sense to me - especially the part about fighting as a gladiator as an alternative to military service in Vietnam. Last I checked, people weren't exactly signing up to fight in Vietnam in large numbers because they wanted to kill people - they were drafted, whether they needed an outlet for their aggression or not.)

Over the years, this underground group of gladiators gains more and more attention, with a complex set of rules governing their fights and behavior outside of the ring. Eventually it gains the fame of other major sports, and the complex rules and bylaws begin extending beyond the gladiators themselves to their wives and children. One of these archaic rules involves the "dowry bracelets" that daughters of gladiators wear. If a gladiator other than her father possesses the bracelet, the daughter is required to marry that gladiator. In a tragic turn of events, our protagonist Lyn had given her seventh father (her mother's seventh gladiator husband) her dowry bracelet for good luck on the morning of what ended up being his last fight. After Lyn's father has been brutally cut down in the ring, his opponent, Uber, picks up the bracelet, thinking it is nothing more than a trophy from his latest kill. Thanks to the obsessive paparazzi, however, it doesn't take long for everyone to discover who the true owner of the bracelet was, and what this means for Lyn now.

Lyn has long been at odds with her mother, Allison, and gladiator culture in general. Lyn has started to consider herself a pacifist - the antithesis of the hyper violent gladiator fights - and finds her mother's behavior as a career gladiator wife backwards at best. Freshly 18, Lyn wants to move beyond life as a member of "glad culture," but with Uber's capture of her dowry bracelet, she must find a way to navigate the tricky rules that govern glad culture to find an acceptable way out of the engagement while protecting her mother and her younger brother.

There are a lot of surface comparisons to be made between Girl in the Arena and The Hunger Games (and there are a few minor plot points that have an eerie similarity to minor points in Catching Fire as well), but nothing deep enough that would have me legitimately recommending this to someone based solely on their love of Hunger Games. Yes, Lyn ends up in the arena to fight to the death and she does it in a round about way to protect her family, much as Katniss participates in the Games in order to protect her sister. But in The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins developed a horrifically blood thirsty culture, where most of the sane people in the districts realizes these fights to the death among children are disgusting and wrong. In Girl in the Arena, gladiators are always adults, they are always volunteers, and since a gladiator fight is little more than a sporting event, most people can avoid them (and in fact Lyn mentions having lots of problems at school because she is one of only two gladiator kids at her school). The crazy rules that extend beyond the gladiators to their families are stifling, yes, but violating those rules means losing your contract or your family loses prestige and money - a far cry from the lethal punishment handed out in District 11 to a child who just wanted to play with nightvision goggles.

Additionally, Girl in the Arena tries so hard to be cool at times that it's a book I see becoming dated very, very soon. I can only sit through so many references to YouTube, Second Life (seriously, does anyone still play Second Life anymore?), and the Virgin Megastore before my eyes start to glaze over. Plus the author totally got the format of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart wrong - something so small, but would have been SO EASY to actually research. Yes, it's a bit of alternate history so some things can be forgiven (maybe in this reality Jon Stewart hosts an hour long show with multiple guests?) but with all of the attempts to be cool it just got grating after awhile.
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