I picked up a galley of Lise Haines’s Girl in the Arena at last year’s Book Expo America. Fresh from devouring The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, I was looking for something to fill the void until its sequel was released. When a rep at the Bloomsbury booth handed me Girl in the Arena and said, “It’s the next Hunger Games“, of course I took it.
But really, nothing is ever The Next __[insert wildly popular book here]__. And I’m starting to realize that labeling a new book as such–basically hanging its success on its similarity to an already-successful book–really isn’t fair. While I realize this strategy can help sell the new book, it also affects the reader’s experience of said book. You end up reading the new book through the lens of the popular one.
When Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series began to gain popularity, people started calling it “The Next Harry Potter.” “Ooh!” I thought. “I must read it! I loved Harry Potter!” So I did, and I enjoyed Percy Jackson, but it is not Harry Potter. Comparing it to J.K. Rowling’s series set certain expectations in my mind. It’s not that Percy Jackson didn’t live up to them; it’s that it was the wrong set of expectations entirely.
That said, let’s put The Hunger Games aside and continue on to Girl in the Arena.
Our heroine is Lyn G., a girl in her upper teens. The city is Boston; the time is perhaps a bit ahead of our own — they do have some pretty cool technology — but near enough to ours that The Daily Show is still going strong. The major difference between Lyn’s world and ours is the existence of a subculture known as Glad — short for gladiator. The neo-gladiator sport has gained in popularity until it resembles something like WWE in our culture…except that the fights are actually deadly.
Lyn is the daughter of seven gladiators, her mother, Allison, likes to say. What this means is that Allison has had seven Glad husbands since Lyn was born; each has died in the combat arena. Allison is a model GSA (that’s Gladiator Sports Association) wife — she lives by a strict set of laws and bylaws, having signed a contract when she joined the GSA with her first husband, shortly after Lyn was born. As Allison has risen in status, marrying higher and higher in the gladiator ranks, she has gained fame and money. Now, she and her family live in a beautiful house on Brattle Street in Cambridge, which is constantly swarmed by the paparazzi, and people on the street treat her like a celebrity.
Lyn, who is pressured from all sides to follow in Allison’s footsteps, balks at the strict code mandated for Glad wives and is planning, much to Allison’s dismay, to make a different life for herself. People recognize her on the street as well, but where Allison basks in the attention, Lyn shies away. She goes to school, hangs out with her best friend Mark, and helps take care of her little brother, Thad. It’s clear she understands what is expected of her and what her role is as a gladiator’s daughter, but her attitude is neither one of passive acceptance nor open rebellion.
When the story opens, Tommy, the seventh father/husband and a top gladiator, is preparing for an important match against Uber, a newer player on the Glad scene. Tommy is clearly rattled, not confident the way he usually is going into a match, and Lyn is worried. For luck, she lends him her dowry bracelet. According to Glad law, only a father may handle his daughter’s dowry bracelet; any other man who touches it must marry the girl to whom the bracelet belongs. When the fight goes awry, Uber ends up with Lyn’s bracelet, and Lyn is stuck with a choice to make: does she refuse to marry Uber, thereby losing her family’s honor and fortune? Or does she give in to the pressure and accept the Glad wife path she’s resisted for so long?
I liked Lyn a lot. She’s strong and sure of herself, but she still has some weaknesses. She’s clever, she’s resourceful, she’s human. And I thought the story was original — a hybrid of a teen girl story and a celebrity saga, with a touch of that dystopian, futuristic thing thrown in.
Yes, I would recommend Girl in the Arena for fans of The Hunger Games, Graceling, and so forth; but readers should not expect a facsimile of these books. Instead, Girl in the Arena is its own story — and a good one at that.