“The Gladiator and the Guard” by Annie Douglass Lima

When I started reading this novel, I thought it was rather lightweight. A society of gladiators and slaves, with kids speaking typical modern vernacular and riding in pickup trucks? And then I realized. This author is writing about our society. She has just taken a step sideways; our poor have become slaves and our professional athletes have moved to more serious violence. And then I began to get involved with the characters and their problems, which are not a whole lot different from those of poor people in today’s society, and it started to mean a whole lot more.

The story involves Bensin, a slave and amateur gladiator. His owner, Coach Steene, would love to set him free, but can never quite afford it, because the “check engine” light on his old pickup truck keeps warning him of expenses to come. A combination of bad luck, cheating competitors and unequal treatment under the law drops Benison into the violent world of the professional killers, where he struggles to maintain his individuality while trapped in the brutal and dehumanizing life of a slave gladiator.

The main strength of the writing is the attachment we have to the main characters and our sympathy for them in the emotional crises they go through. There are plenty of well-detailed fight scenes, in both the arena and the backstreets, and great suspense in the final chapters.

A problem that bothered me some was the fact that people talk too much at the wrong times, slowing down the action. I can accept the fact that they are rushed into an unplanned escape attempt, but they spend far too much time talking about what to do next when they should be…well, escaping! This is a good technique for creating suspense, but if overused it leads the reader to skip through to find the place where the action starts moving again.

Other than that and a few factual errors that have not been thought through carefully, this story moves along beautifully. A straightforward Action Fantasy, recommended for all YA fans.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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