BOOK REVIEW: Shadowboxer

Tricia 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 with 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.

“No-one messes with Jade Barrera. In the ring she’s a champion with an unbeaten takedown record, but Jade’s got a temper and one day it’s going to get her in trouble.

Following her disqualification for dirty tactics in the cage – and her run in with one of Hollywood’s hottest stars – Jade’s trainer, Mr B, is left with no choice: Jade needs to cool it down if she’s ever going to reach her full potential. Luckily Mr B’s got contacts, and soon Jade finds herself out of New Jersey and into a brutal new training camp in the heart of Thailand.”

Jade is our first person narrator and her 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 at the 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, but not a cliché. And so, thanks to Sullivan’s writing, I’d dismissed my trepidation within a few pages and 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. Sullivan describes these scenes like a fantasy novel, almost dreamlike in quality. The contrast with Jade’s life is startling. Despite her descriptive narrative, 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 this is where 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. Just the story of a tough young fighter who must learn a lesson. Things start to make sense soon after, however. 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 called Shea comes into her life. It seems that Mr B might be into more than just fighting. Food is going missing from her flat. People are chasing after a phone that keeps turning up. Some other people are found dead, apparently mauled by a large animal. And then there’s Mya, the little girl who can disappear into a house plant. So, fantasy then. 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. She also uses emails sporadically as narrative devices. Not sure they work. This is a double edged sword. If people read it in 30 years’ time, will they laugh at the tech? Maybe, but then isn’t that always the danger? 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 in society. There’s movie and celebrity culture in general. Family abuse gets a mention. But when intersectionality pops up, I wondered if Sullivan had perhaps spread her character development (and the ideas within the narrative generally) a little thin. 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 with 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 fantastic elements are 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 book is probably going to be labelled YA as it features a 17 year old girl as its main protagonist, and the younger Mya as the second lead. I’m not the target audience, and although it’s far from perfect, it is a very enjoyable and original take on modern fantasy that anyone can enjoy.

AUTHOR: Tricia Sullivan
PUBLISHER: Ravenstone

Rating: 4/5

Blogger: Ian J Simpson

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