Contender – The Challenger by Taran Matharu
Hodder Children’s Books, £12.99, HB
Reviewed by Steve Dean
The galaxy, it seems, is nothing but a plaything for massively powerful alien overlords. These beings play games against each other using individuals and small groups of natives taken from each of the planets in arena-style combats. There’s even a league table, and those planets whose chosen champions don’t make the grade are destroyed. I’m not sure of the details of how it all works, but it seems to be a Fantasy Football kind of thing, where each alien chooses a planet or two, and off they go. I don’t know if there’s a trophy at the end, or it’s just for kudos; it’s not really explained.
Earth’s manager is called Abaddon, and he picks a group of young teens who aren’t fully grown and have no combat experience to fight for Earth. Why the overlord does this when they could have gone for, oh I don’t know, some SAS veterans, one of many martial arts experts or a medieval re-enactment combat specialist isn’t clear.
Still with me? Good. So, the hero is one Cade Carter. He and his friends are hanging out in an old castle and trying to survive after the last book’s events, which are sketched here. For some reason, the teens head off downriver on a raft, searching for sub-plot items that don’t really develop into much. Out on the river, they are captured by slavers and taken to a Romanesque town where they are forced to fight in gladiatorial combat against other teens and wild animals from various time zones. Here, they’re trained in the ways of the arena by an old woman who turns out to be an expert in such things. Once Cade is suitably levelled up, he’s transported to the main event and forced to fight another champion.
This is book two in the series, but each is a standalone adventure and can be read separately. My main problem with this book, and it’s something of a fatal flaw, is the intended audience. It’s being sold as a children’s book, which by publishing industry definition could be as young as eight. The writing, the tone, the vocabulary and the 65 short chapters all match up with that. The content is another matter. Detailed descriptions of the vile privations of slavery and teens killing each other in combat with no more thought than ‘oh well’ and other similar material is YA level at least. I certainly wouldn’t give this book to anyone under 16, and then only if they were a mature reader.
Putting aside the strange plot, the illogical choice of champions and blatant foreshadowing, we’re left with a competently written book, which seems to be well-researched and, given the above, is an ok read.