I requested this from NetGalley because I’ve read a few Theresa Breslin novels in the past and enjoyed them, particularly those where she draws on historical events. This one appealed because for some reason, the London Underground seems like an awesome setting for a book, although I was less intrigued by the cage fighting aspect because it’s not a world I know anything about.
The premise reminded me vaguely of a book I studied in year seven at school called Stone Cold. That didn’t have any fighting in it, but it’s about homeless teenagers and so on, and having studied it for months means it’s stuck in my head the way most books I read nine years ago simply haven’t.
Anyway, I found this an intriguing enough premise. The story deals with a group of teenagers who’ve been rescued from the streets by a man calling himself Spartacus. They’re running an underground cage fighting operation and broadcasting it online to raise money and awareness about homeless teenagers, in the hopes of “shaming the government into take action”, although at this point the teens are mostly in it for the money they’ve been promised. Things get complicated when the secrecy of the operation is put at risk by the appearance of a girl looking for her sister, who she believes to be in an old blocked-off station.
While I enjoyed the plot, and found the various twists and turns of character loyalty and motivations pretty interesting, I have to admit the book felt a lot more simplistic than other novels I’ve read by Theresa Breslin. Maybe it’s aimed at younger readers (it’s certainly shorter than some of her other books), but it just seemed really basic in terms of writing style, with a lot of telling rather than showing. Moreover, it falls into a lot of very predictable patterns, with the appearance of a new girl creating a pseudo love triangle, and general feelings of jealousy that seemed shallow and unconvincing.
That was the element I liked the least — while it’s easy to believe that teenagers in a claustrophobic underground space would be at each other’s throats, it still seemed a little unrealistic that they’d be caught up in something as basic as romantic jealousy considering everything else they’ve been through. It became more convincing later in the book as the emotional manipulation they were experiencing was revealed, but for a long time, it just seemed sort of pointless, as I thought they had more important things to be worrying about.
It was entertaining that each of the characters used a code name, and that most of them had chosen historical fighters or mythological figures — there’s something amusing about Boudicca hanging out with Beowulf and Medusa. At first, this made it hard to take the characters seriously, because I could only associate the names with their original characters. However, I adjusted to it eventually, and it no longer felt quite so bizarre. Except for “Bird Girl”. That one never quite clicked with me.
Despite having a convincing and well-constructed plot, I felt this book was a letdown when it came to actual character development, because the majority of them felt insubstantial. They have their reasons for not talking about their backstories, which is understandable, and the slight glimpses we do get are enough to help us understand what those are, but this secrecy means we don’t get much of an idea what they’re thinking. Throughout the book, their motivations seem very simplistic, motivated by money or jealousy, and it’s hard to feel particularly connected to any of them. Kai, the viewpoint character, is marginally more sympathetic just because we see inside his head a bit more, but I would have liked to understand the others better.
Add to that the slightly weak writing, which I didn’t expect from a writer as well-renowned as Theresa Breslin, and all in all the execution of the book was a bit of a letdown. Maybe its simplicity was because it was aimed at younger readers, but I don’t think ‘easy to read’ should mean ‘less good’, so I was somewhat disappointed by that.
If I were the type to give half stars (which I seem to have done a fair bit recently), I’d probably give this 2.5 stars. I enjoyed aspects of it, and it’s such a quick read that the parts I didn’t like were at least over quickly, but I felt on the whole it failed to live up to its potential. I’ll be nice and give it three, but I was somewhat disappointed by this.