Girl in the Arena opens up with a summary of how neo-gladiator sports were first introduced in America, In 1969, by the grieving father of a Vietnam soldier. Over the years, gladiator games became a professional sport governed by strict laws for the gladiator participants and their families, and the games are often fought to the death for the entertainment of the spectators.
Lyn is used to living a high-profile life as the daughter of seven different gladiators, since her mother has made a career of marrying successful Glad players. Lyn herself is a pacifist who has no aspirations of becoming a gladiator wife, like her mother, planning instead to go to a regular university and maintain her independence. But Lyn still shows up every weekend at the arena to show support for each of her stepfathers, as is her duty as a Glad daughter.
When Tommy, Lyn’s current and favorite stepfather, seems unusually agitated about his upcoming fight, Lyn lends him her dowry bracelet, as a show of support. But to Lynn’s horror, she is forced to watch as her stepfather is killed by a talented, young Glad player, Uber, who then goes on to pick up Lyn’s bracelet from the ground. According to Glad law, any male, other than the father, who holds a woman’s dowry bracelet, is required to marry her. And so Lyn find herself being forced to accede to a marriage with her father’s murderer, otherwise everything that her and her mother possess will be taken away from them and they will be left destitute.
But Lynn has thought of another way she may be able to save herself and her family, by fighting Uber herself, within the Glad arena. The only problem is that Lyn has very little experience in fighting, while Uber has been training since he was a child, and as Lyn gets to know Uber better she finds herself reluctantly coming to like him, which will make things even more difficult when she faces him in a fight to the death.
Although I’m not much of a YA fiction reader, my enjoyment of The Hunger Games, as well as a few other YA books, has made me more open to trying books within this genre. And although I was presuming that Girl in the Arena would be more then just another version of The Hunger Games, I was hoping that it would be just as good.
There are enough similarities between the two books to cause readers to draw comparisons. Both The Hunger Games and Girl in the Arena take place in a society where fights to the death are a form of entertainment, and both books have a female protagonist with no father, a mentally unstable mother, a vulnerable younger sibling and a male best friend. But the two books do differ in the plots themselves, and unfortunately, Girl in the Arena lacks the depth and plausibility that made The Hunger Games such a strong and compelling book.
First of all, while the time frame of the story was not specified, the cultural references led me to assume that the story takes place in modern times, in which case, the fact that there were laws governing marriage for Glad daughters and wives, seemed implausible. I just couldn’t understand how a sports organization could force a girl to marry a man because he held her bracelet, or what the purpose for such a law would even be. If the society in which the story was taking place was completely unrecognizable from our current one, then it might have been more plausible, but this was not the case and such strange laws seemed out-of-place in the modern sounding setting. I also wasn’t convinced of how the violent and deadly fights were so readily accepted by society or in the reasoning for the development of these games in the first place.
And while the character development wasn’t too bad, the messages we are given about many of the characters seem to conflict. Uber, for one, was supposed to be one of the top gladiators, but as Lyn gets to know him she discovers that he is actually rather clumsy and has very bad vision. So while I did come to like Uber, I couldn’t help but disbelieve in such an awkward character being a top gladiator. And Lyn’s friend, Mark, supposedly likes Lyn as more then just a friend, but none of his actions actually give us any reason to believe this. When Lyn suffers a tragedy, and Mark’s parents rush over to help, Mark is not even mentioned, which I thought was strange. So while I felt like the characters were pretty well developed and realistic, at the same time I was confused by the mixed messages that were given about them.
I also didn’t really feel like there was very much happening in the story, after Lyn’s father gets killed and her bracelet is picked up. After that climatic event, the story seems to just amble along as Lyn becomes acquainted with Uber and deals with the after affects of Tommy’s death, but it lacks the intensity and drama that I was hoping for.
Ultimately, I would have to say that I found Girl in the Arena a disappointment, not at all what I had been hoping for. While, unlike The Hunger Games, this is not a book that will appeal to audiences of all ages, I do think it's possible that that YA readers for whom it is intended, might enjoy it more.