Girl in the Arena by Lise Haines. (Grades 8+) Bloomsbury, October 2009. Review copy provided by Bloomsbury as part of blog tour.
All her life, Lyn has lived according to the bylaws written out for the neo-gladiators. Her mother is a Glad wife, a woman who has made a career out of marrying gladiators, and Lyn has had seven different fathers, all of them gladiators. Lyn's familiar with the rules, so when a gladiator named Uber kills her seventh father in the arena and captures her dowry bracelet, Lyn knows that it means she must marry him. Unless she can find a way out...
Hoo boy. I'm going to start this off by telling you that I read the first half of this novel and skimmed the second half.
I'll tell you how I felt in the first half - confused. And a little bored. Which is not great when you're reading a book with such a compelling premise. I was psyched to get started, enthused about the plot description and the surely kick-butt heroine I was about to meet. But then the story just dragged on and I never really felt like I got a complete picture of the Glad world.
You could argue that the jacket copy revealed too much of the plot and maybe that's why I was bored, but I would say that when your hook doesn't come until halfway through the book, that's a problem for me. The title is Girl in the Arena, but Lyn doesn't seriously consider actually entering the arena until almost halfway through the story.
Another problem I had was the punctuation (please note that I'm reviewing from an ARC, so it's possible this might have changed, but it was such a major problem for me that I feel I have to mention it). Instead of quotation marks, we have the em dash. I guess I don't really understand why. Maybe it's cool and different? But to me it just confused things further. Characters, who were not incredibly distinct in the first place, ran together and it took some effort to figure out who was saying what. Maybe that's why I felt like I never really got to know Lyn and I felt somewhat removed from her plight.
One last issue (and this may have been explained in the second half of the book while I was skimming) was that I didn't understand the rules of the dowry bracelet. So, Lyn has a dowry bracelet. What does that mean? What is the purpose of the dowry bracelet? All I really know is that according to the rules, if another man besides her father touches her dowry bracelet she's supposed to marry him. And since Uber defeated her father, the rules say he has to keep all of his opponent's objects that were in the arena. I get that this is part of the "Glad culture", but for a book that is supposedly set in present-day America, I need some explanation of how this dowry business works.
Now, there was one thing I really liked. I loved Uber. Uber is our romantic hero (kinda). He's a reluctant gladiator (though I don't think I found out why he was so reluctant or why he kept going when he didn't like it... maybe that was in a part that I skimmed). Inside the arena he puts on his tough gladiator face, but outside the arena he wears thick glasses and admits his admiration for Tommy, the man he killed in the arena. I wanted to know more about Uber, so in the second half I skimmed and only read the parts with him.
So, there you have it. I felt it was a great premise, especially on the heels of The Hunger Games, but the writing, characters, and setting just didn't follow through. You don't have to agree with me, though. The Compulsive Reader enjoyed it. And here's a whole tour's worth of people who will have varying opinions:
The 160 Acre Woods, A Patchwork of Books, All About Children's Books, Becky's Book Reviews, Fireside Musings, Homeschool Buzz, KidzBookBuzz, Maw Books Blog, My Own Little Corner of the World, Reading is My Superpower, and The Hungry Readers.
Girl in the Arena is on shelves today, October 13.