This book is described as “Fight Club meets Black Swan”, and while I’ve only seen the latter, what I know about Fight Club would suggest that’s a fairly accurate comparison. Rachel is a ballet enthusiast, though she describes herself as a ‘wannabe’ who has never had a lead role, suggesting she’s not aiming for the life of a professional dancer. But she’s been missing for two weeks, and doesn’t remember the last year — a year in which she rejected her former best friend, changed her fashion and music taste completely, and became somebody she doesn’t recognise in the mirror. Someone who can fight.
As the book goes on, Rachel’s memories begin to crack open as she revisits the places and people she’s forgotten, eventually revealing the truth about what happened to her, although I don’t remember a proper explanation for her memory loss other than some speculative remarks about trauma and PTSD. It seemed mostly like a convenient plot device to raise the tension, because if she knew everything that had happened over the past year, there would have been no mystery left. That said, although to a certain extent the story worked with this backwards telling, it might have made just as much sense being told in chronological order, without the memory loss incident — the actual events were dramatic and tense enough.
It’s hard to review this without any spoilers whatsoever, so I’ll just say this much: over the past year, Rachel’s got involved in a scene that’s part rave, part ring fighting. And she’s good at it. She’s got a team, enemies, a nickname. Even blacklight tattoos, which contribute to the Black Swan comparison because they’re feathers/wings. (Her ballet background is the inspiration for that; it isn’t wholly random.)
There was a lot that I enjoyed about the book. It’s dramatic. It’s violent, which I sort of like when it’s teenage girls doing the violence, especially when it’s against people who have hurt them. Rachel’s family are protective but supportive, unlike many YA parents who are either protective but therefore oppressive and awful, or supportive and useless. Her dad’s got a military background, but is still portrayed as loving, which made a change. And she’s got a good relationship with her brother, too, for the most part. Families don’t get enough of a look-in in YA.
There’s the beginning of a strong emphasis on friendship, but this is where I think the book might have worked better if it had been told chronologically. Rachel had her reasons when she picked the various girls on her team, and she got to know them over the course of the year she doesn’t remember. (There wasn’t an explanation for why she pushed away her former best friend, either, but at least she’s back on the scene now.) She remembers some of that in flashbacks, but it wasn’t quite as complete a picture as it would have been if we, as readers, had seen those relationships develop on the page, and witnessed them becoming the slightly messed up found family that they are now. I felt that under-utilised the potential for character development there.
One thing I really didn’t like so much about the book was how gendered everything seemed. This was a feature in the high school setting, and seemed painfully heteronormative. I generally didn’t connect with the high school scenes at all — I’m too British, and my school was too uncliquey, for it to be at all relatable. All these lunchtime cliques and encounters? Not a thing at my school. Not that I’d have noticed, since I spent all my time in the library and ate at break, but whatever. Point is, I didn’t click with that side of the story. And I’ve read so much queer fiction lately that I’ve sort of forgotten what it’s like to read a book that doesn’t have any queer characters at all, so when Rachel started swooning over a cute boy and talking about kisses stealing her heart and soul, I just felt… disconnected. That, however, I could have dealt with; I grew up doing so, after all.
But the strictly gendered divides were also a feature in other parts of the book, namely the fighting. While I can see that it would make a certain amount of sense to split wrestling up by gender as well as weight class (although to be honest, if you’re already matching them by size, does it matter? I don’t know much about wrestling), it just took that element a bit too far. The boys are being drugged with “blue thunder”. The girls with “pink lightning”. The girls’ teams had names like the “Swan Girls” or “Pink Candi”, while the boys were “Orcs” or “The Skulls”. It was like… you know how toiletries are either pink and purple or they’re black and grey because clearly men need strong manly shower gel and women need to know they’ll be fruity fresh? Yeah. It just seemed kind of unnecessary and over the top.
For most people, I guess that wouldn’t be a dealbreaker. I’m just weird about unnecessarily gendered stuff, especially when everything becomes super binary and hetero and there’s such a clear divide between the girls and the guys. It’s not how I see the world, and it jars me to be faced with it in such an unquestioning manner, where nobody transcends those boundaries even a little bit. My friendship group includes trans and non-binary people, as well as butch girls and effeminate guys, so I guess that influences how I understand things like that. Even before I had a queer perspective, my friends were always a good mix, and my school didn’t feel so segregated. I don’t know. It just sat wrongly for me personally.
So while there was a lot that I liked about this, it didn’t entirely work for me because of those factors.