On reading YA fiction: Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

ShadowboxerTricia Sullivan is best known for her uncompromising visions of the future. She’s tackled far-future genetics, brain implants, AIs, consumerism and designer violence amongst many other tough topics. So it was a raised eyebrow that I picked up her latest, Shadowboxer, which seems at first glance to be set very much in the present, if not maybe tomorrow, and is demonstrably not science fiction. It is also very much of the genre currently labelled as YA (Young Adult).

YA is very topical at the moment. I’ve seen arguments (mostly on Twitter) both for and against adults reading YA books – in other words not the target market. Personally, I’m indifferent about it. I won’t chose what I want to read on whether something is labelled YA or not, or is currently following a trend. I read what I read because of recommendations, previous experience of an author, or if something looks interesting.

I’m a fan of Sullivan, and have read all her books, and so I wanted to read Shadowboxer for that reason alone, although the subject matter rather than the target market was more of a concern. I have no interest in mixed marshal arts. However, I’ve read several books from the point of view of a young woman and enjoyed some. Interestingly, a recent read, Terra by Mitch Benn, is from the POV of a 12-year-old girl, but that wasn’t targeted at the YA market.

However, the few YA books I’ve read in the past have led to a struggle. I haven’t enjoyed them for a number of reasons, although not because I couldn’t relate to the protagonists. SHadowboxer  is an odd beast for me to pick up.

We meet Jade, the first person narrator. We quickly learn that she’s a hot-headed young mixed martial arts fighter. The main personality trait appears to be that of a typical teen – she can’t control her life, despite an assuredness and control when in the ring. She’s confident, no, arrogant, as any young person on top of their game would be (“I’m really fast”) and while Sullivan has an immediate handle on writing her as a teenager, using what feels like the correct language, she doesn’t over-egg it. Jade appears to be fairly normal. Not a cliché. And so thanks to Sullivan’s writing, within a few pages, I’d dismissed my trepidation and soon became engrossed in Jade’s character. She’s very believable. But then, we’re suddenly in a forest with characters called Mya and Mr Richard. What’s going on? There’s still no real hints of anything science fiction or fantasy. Has Sullivan written a contemporary novel? Now, however, it appears that we’re in Thailand and there the clichés appear (Mr Richard especially talks in corny phrases). After a few chapters of What the hell is going on? we’re back with Jade and some exposition. In the first few chapters (up to about the Smart Phone chapter) it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere much. This is just the story of a tough young fighter who must learn a lesson. Nothing particularly exciting. Soon after, however, things start to make sense. Now we have a plot coming together and the two strands of fiction begin to make sense.

So Jade is sent to Thailand to train and as a punishment, but before long she’s back in the US gearing up for the fight of her life. The cat she made friends with in Thailand is with her. A mysterious young journalist, Shea, comes into her life. It seems that her trainer, Mr B, might be into more than just fighting. Food is going missing from her flat. People are after a phone that keeps turning up. Some other people are found dead, apparently mauled by some large animal. And then there’s Mya. The little girl who can disappear into a house plant. This is a thick and complex plot, but it is always engaging, and you constantly want to know what’s happening and who is this and why are they behaving like that.

Sullivan weaves modern culture into the novel, with references to Instagram, Jennifer Lawrence and clothes brands, amongst others. This is a double-edged sword. The story is of the moment and therefore gives it a solid grounding, but will it date? If people read it in 30 years’ time, will they laugh at the tech? Maybe, but then isn’t that always the danger? Sullivan also uses emails sporadically as narrative devices. Not sure they work. There is a lot of ‘of the moment’ bits and pieces – the subtext if you will – in the story, and not just the tech stuff. There is a lot about racial and female inclusion. There’s movie and celebrity culture in general. Family abuse gets a mention. But when intersectionality pops up, I wondered if Sullivan had included a topical issue too many. Not that there’s any reason why these topics shouldn’t be discussed, however, it sometimes reads almost like a checklist of teen issues. Of course, many teens experience many and varied complex issues, so this may be exactly what the YA market wants to read about.

Jade is very much aware of who she is and her personality is the main strength of Shadowboxer. Despite her flaws and failings, she’s very much someone you enjoy getting to know and spending time with. When she loses a fight early on, she takes it in such good grace. I liked the fact that Sullivan didn’t feel the need to describe all of Jade’s training and fights in detail – that would have become boring fast. A book doesn’t need a training montage video. Once the fantasy elements kick in, with Jade in first person and Mya in third, the narrative reminded me of the juxtaposition in Sullivan’s Maul. Which is a good thing. The plot picks up and becomes more interesting. Clues come and go, and not all are as obvious as you might think. Not everyone or everything is who they seem. Once the fantasy elements is established, the story all comes together like a delicious and very satisfying pizza.

There’s a sentence Sullivan writes just before the final scenes which deserves a special mention. I laughed out loud. It mentions a superhero and an animal. Any more would be a spoiler, but when you get to it you’ll know. It just about sums up what this book is about. Enjoyable characters with depth, interesting and unexpected plotting, terrific and knowing writing. This novel features a 17 year old girl as its main protagonist, and the younger Mya as the second lead. Once I was into the story, which I was, it never crossed my mind that I was reading something specifically YA. I was reading a decent story with decent characters. So while it’s as far removed from Sullivan’s past science fiction novels, I didn’t disappoint. I’m clearly not the target audience, and although it’s far from perfect, it is a very enjoyable and original take on modern fantasy.

The original review parts of this post were first post here: http://geeksyndicate.co.uk/reviews/book-review-shadowboxer/ 

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