Kung Fu High School

Kung Fu High School

Author: Ryan Gattis

Publication: 2005, Harcourt

Pages: 278

Overall Rating: bth_35_zps7a173504[1]

Rating for Action: bth_45_zps06f87659[1]

Quantity of Action: bth_4-star-rating_zps38e772a0[1]

Age Category: 13+

Brief Summary: The Good Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King High is better known as Kung Fu High School, because every kid there knows how to fight.  The school – in fact the entire town – is ruled over by Ridley, a local drug lord, and the students have been divided into families.  Jen and Cue belong to the Waves, one of the few families opposed to Ridley.  When their cousin, Jimmy Chang, shows up they’re thrilled.  His fighting skills are legendary.  He’s won a string of world championships in just about every style of martial arts and has gone undefeated in more than 2,000 bouts.  But then reality sinks in – Jimmy made a promise to his mom never to fight again.  And at a place like Kung Fu, not fighting can be deadly.  Especially when a surprise attack sets of a string of events that sends everyone at Kung Fu onto the warpath and leaves Jen battling for her life.

Age of Main Character: 15

What I Liked the Most: Gattis has done a great job with Jen.  A lot of the other characters felt pretty thin – but Jen stood out as a heroine I could get behind.  Through her, Gattis took me on a ride into a very different life.  Jen’s mother is dead and her dad is an invalid.  She goes to a school where she has to be ready to fight at any moment, but her life is more than just Kung Fu.  It’s trying to stretch her dad’s disability payments enough to buy groceries, making sure he takes his meds, and wiping his ass when he goes to the bathroom.  And Gattis doesn’t try to downplay any of this, to smooth over the rough edges of her life.  I felt the hardships, and I felt her reaction.  And that solid foundation helped carry me along as Kung Fu falls into chaos.

What I Liked the Least: The set up was so over the top it was hard to take seriously – Ridley controlled absolutely everyone from the administration to the cops, every kid at Kung Fu fought, every freshman got violently kicked in, often bad enough to send them to the hospital.  And no one ever complained.  It’s like everyone’s worst nightmare of a gang-ridden school put on hyper-drive.  In the end, I think Gattis goes too far.  I often found myself saying, “No way.  That could never happen.”

The same thing was true of Jimmy.   The kid is just too good.  And because he’s there and tearing up everyone who stands in his path, it was hard to get caught up in the action when Jimmy was involved.  Of course he’s going to win.  Even the final showdown – the one that should have really put Jimmy to the test – was a disappointment.

How Good was the Action? From a technical standpoint it’s amazing.  The last seventy five or so pages are basically one long battle, as Jen and Jimmy make their way through the school taking out opponents right and left.  Each fight is brief and brutal.  It’s not like in martial arts movies, where people somehow keep going after taking damage that should have killed them ten times over.  And the way Gattis writes, it’s easy to visualize exactly what is happening.  Take this little snippet – I stomped on her toes as she scrambled over her bleeding family member and then brought my plastic knuckled fist right through her glass jaw.  She wasn’t out, but she was malleable enough for me to snag by the collar and waist with both hands and hip-toss her toward the advancing runners straight ahead of me.

As far as the action goes, there were only two problems.  First, Gattis doesn’t always do a good job balancing emotions in his fights.  There were times when you’d get page after page of fairly straight forward action only to stumble into two or three long paragraphs of complicated emotional reaction.  Second was Jimmy – like I said, he’s just too damn good.  It was easy to get into Jen’s fights.  But once Jimmy comes on the scene everything turns into a series of bone crushing moves as he wipes out one group of kids after the next.  There’s way he can lose, and so a lot of the tensions drains right out of the scenes.

How Engaging was the Story? I loved Jen’s character and got caught up in her struggle and her losses, but some of the other characters are pretty weak, and there were so many over the top things about Kung Fu and Ridley that it was sometimes hard to take everything seriously.  That didn’t stop me from caring about Jen, but it did make it easy enough to put the book aside whenever I had something else I needed to do.

Overall Assessment: Kung Fu is a hyper-violent novel.  At its center is a girl just struggling to survive in a world that keeps kicking her in the teeth.  It’s enough to give the book a sense of heart, but in the end Kung Fu is most likely to appeal to readers looking for a good rumble and a lot of bloody action.   

Profanity: Yes, and plenty of it.

Sex: Some.  There are a couple of scenes involving Jimmy and Jen.  They weren’t overly explicit, but they definitely went well beyond a chaste kiss.

Violence: You could say that.  The violence in this book is extreme.  It’s bloody and very immediate, with tons of little details like this – his broken body slid all the way down the hall…then slammed into the wall headfirst, cracking a bit of his skull off and leaving a nearly instant poodle-piss-size puddle of blood on the tile in front of the locker room door.  On the other hand, no one in this book gets off without serious injury or consequences.  No one.  The violence is real and immediate, and it’s more than enough to strip away the romanticism and make you think twice about ever getting into a fight yourself.

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