Girl in the Arena


Author: Lise Haines

Publication: 2009, Bloomsbury

Pages: 336

Overall Rating: bth_4-star-rating_zps38e772a0[1]

Rating for Action: bth_2-star-rating-1_zps4cdc0d23[1]

Quantity of Action: bth_1-star-rating_zpseb48ae1d[1]

Age Category: 13+

Brief Summary: Lyn has had seven fathers, all of whom fought and died as gladiators. In this alternate version of America, the period following the end of the Vietnam War saw the creation of a widespread network of Gladiator Sports Enthusiasts clubs. Those clubs were eventually brought together under the Gladiator Sports Association (GSA), and evolved from a non-lethal form of organized sparring that used balsa wood swords, to a modern day version of the Roman games, complete with severed limbs, lions and tigers, and buckets of blood.

After Lyn’s seventh father, Tommy, dies in the arena, her mother becomes a permanent widow. Under the strict rules of the GSA she will never be allowed to marry again. And because of the way Tommy died, she will lose her house, her pension, and almost everything she has. But the GSA offers a way out – Lyn and her family can get everything back IF she agrees to marry Uber, the man who killed her father.

Lyn doesn’t want to follow in her mother’s footsteps, she can’t stomach the idea of being a Glad wife, and even though she kind of likes Uber she can’t imagine being married to the man who murdered her father. To escape her fate, and care for her family, she’ll have to do the unthinkable. She’ll have to enter the arena herself and take on Uber in a fight to the death.

Age of Main Character: 18

What I Liked the Most: This was an ingenious story. Haines created a world that’s just as terrifying as some post apocalyptic wasteland, but without all the human misery and suffering. In many ways, it feels like an exact replica of our own world. They have cell phones, shop at the mall, grow flowers in their garden, and even watch John Stewart on TV. But thrust into the midst of all that normalcy is the arena, a world of televised blood sport where men, and even a few women, volunteer to fight to the death for the entertainment of bloodthirsty fans.

It’s one thing to try and imagine the psychology of a soldier – someone who joins the army as a job and then gets shipped off to fight in a war – or a revolutionary fighting for a cause they believe in, or even a boxer who enters to ring to beat someone else’s brains in. But I found it almost impossible to imagine the psychology of someone who signs up to be a gladiator, to enter the ring and fight with a sword for fun and entertainment. Haines does a masterful job putting us in a world where that’s considered normal and trying to portray the mindset of the people who do it.

And I loved the little details of glad life that Haines wove into the book – from all the petty bylaws of the GSA that govern every aspect of how Lyn and her family live, to the revival of roman style clothing like togas and sandals with 15 straps.

What I Liked the Least: At times Haines goes a little too far in portraying Ceaser’s Inc – the company behind the GSA – as evil and out of touch. For a company that probably values PR above everything else, she has them do things that feel publicly reprehensible even for a blood sport company.

Without giving away too much, I also had a lot of trouble following Lyn’s logic in deciding to fight Uber in the arena – especially with her proposal that the match be to the death. Haines has made Uber into a very likable character, and Lyn is clearly developing feelings for him. Circumstances intervened, as they often will in a good story, but I still found it hard to follow her leap of logic that led to the proposed death match.

Likewise, I found Lyn’s subsequent plan for how to handle the fight to be utterly ridiculous and so full of potential flaws that it was obvious from the start they’d have to abandon it.

How Good was the Action? I have to admit that I felt somewhat deceived on the action front. The cover of this novel has a picture of Lyn strapping on her gear for the arena. The full title of the novel is, Girl in the Arena: A Novel Containing Intense and Prolonged Sequences of Disaster and Peril. And the review on the back cover describes this as a “comic book without pictures…rocking with violent energy”. All this led me to expect, and I think not unreasonably, a book that was going to have a lot of “intense and prolonged” scenes of combat in the arena. That’s not the case. In fact, there are only three scenes in the arena. All of them are relatively short and the actual combat is even shorter, with minimal detail and a fair bit of narration.

Let me just say that I fully understand the irony of reading a book about the violence and terror of living in a world of neo-gladiators and being disappointed that there wasn’t more violence in the book. The whole point of Haines’ book is to decry that kind of violence and the mindset that goes with it. I understand that, and there’s no way I’d want to live in a world dominated by the GSA. Maybe Haines even intended to create the expectation of violence and then not put it out there as a way of getting us to think about how much violence we really want in the world. But enough philosophizing. The fact was everything about this book’s presentation led me to expect a novel that was bursting with action. In reality, this is a novel about relationships and emotional choices. There’s very little action and what’s there is mediocre at best.

How Engaging was the Story? This was a thoroughly engrossing story. I was completely sucked in by Lyn’s character, and the dilemma she and her family were placed in was almost unimaginable.   It was fascinating to watch Lyn and her mother try to navigate the crazy world of GSA bylaws and customs that had somehow tossed them into a black hole where her mom – who’d been loyal to the GSA through seven husbands – was left with nothing and Lyn was pushed to marry her dad’s murderer.

Overall Assessment: Girl in the Arena is a frightening, deeply thought provoking novel filled with intensely imagined characters and a future we can only hope to avoid. It’s well worth the read, and a book that could definitely have you questioning your own beliefs on violence as a form of entertainment. The only downside– and yes, I realize how ironic this is – was that everything about the novel’s packaging led me to expect an action-filled read when in reality it was almost entirely about characters and emotion.

Profanity: Little to none

Sex: There are a couple of awkward kisses and a few vague sexual references, but nothing remotely graphic.

Violence: Yes, though less than one might expect given what the book is about. There is blood, a severed limb or two, and some people do die. A tiger is stabbed, someone gets clawed. But there are only a couple of scenes like this and for the most part the violence isn’t all that graphic.

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