A hundred years ago, things were different. The earth was poison, the population of the human race was exploding, and there was no Shadow Fray. Everything has changed, however, in the wake of a global catastrophe called the Thinning. What people are left have separated into clear-cut castes, those with money live as far off the ground as possible, and all the others are left to make due.
Justin, his twin sister Gin, and their brother Charlie are just barely able to scrape by living in the middling levels of a 28-story building. Justin’s gig driving a truck doesn’t pay all the bills, though. Justin lets himself get involved in the Shadow Fray—a gritty, underground fight club featuring Black Jim, a powerhouse of a man, nigh unbeatable, and fantasy fodder for Justin. In just his second fight, Justin manages to put on a show sure to please the mysterious Shadow Masters who run the operation. A handler with zero scruples called Scarecrow, however, catapults Justin’s fight into superstardom when Scarecrow kills Justin’s failed opponent.
Following the first out-right killing in the Shadow Fray, the rules are changing and the stakes are spiraling ever higher. Justin’s very next fight is against the very object of his desire: Black Jim. This is the fight Justin has longed for as long as he’s known about the Fray and now that it’s here, he knows he can’t screw it up. Yet there are machinations unfolding around him over which he has no control. The fall-out from the battle leaves Justin and his family paying far, far more to Scarecrow than would ever be agreeable. And the secret world of the Shadow Fray explodes into Justin’s work-a-day life when Black Jim himself hunts Justin down and makes the most unfathomable proposition. Despite the success he earns in the Fray and finding friendship in the unlikeliest of places, Justin is beginning to realize it may not be long before his time is up.
To be perfectly blunt, I was almost dissatisfied with how this book played out. As you can see from the description, there are a lot of independent elements at work in the plot. There’s the dystopian world that actively affects the life and circumstances of our MCs: Justin and family are just barely able to make ends meet, Black Jim (aka Hale) lives in relative luxury. There’s the secret world of the Shadow Fray. No one officially recognizes this institution, but there are fights in various locations that are filmed and broadcast; given the illicit nature of the “sport,” however, participants must keep low profiles—if the physical damage they receive during fights makes them identifiable to the public at large, these contestants run the risk of some form of punishment. There’s the romance that sparks between Justin and Hale. There’s both Justin’s and Hale’s individual spheres of influence (friends, family), which are distinctly lower- and upper-class respectively.
Of all of these various elements, only the love story really achieves a satisfactory wrap-up (if not out-right conclusion) by the end of the story. The others are all given much on-page attention and fleshed out, but how or why they are significant isn’t made clear enough. When I consider these elements through a quasi-Vito Russo* lens, I’m left questioning what the importance is of Justin’s younger brother Charlie and Hale’s daughter. By the end of this book, I was also perplexed with the stigma attached to being gay in this world. Justin makes it clear being gay is “bad” while at the same time explaining that the number of females able to conceive children is dwindling ever lower. If there was any justification for stigmatizing men for loving other men because women can’t bear children, I totally missed it. It does add a little drama and suspense to Justin and Hale’s budding relationship, but the fact that they are the top two Shadow Fray fighters and being together even as friends is apparently against all the rules gives plenty of (more deserved, I say) suspense than this seemingly arbitrary social “norm.”
The relationship is slow building, at that. We go through a goodly portion of the book before the two ever meet in person—and when they do, it’s so they can literally kick the shit out of one another. If you’re a fan of violence and graphically described fight scenes, you’ll enjoy the first several chapters of this book. Personally, I could take it or leave it. While I didn’t find the fight scenes too vividly described as to be grotesque, there is plenty of description of the blood and sweat and pulverizing blows the fighters dish out. Mostly, I was annoyed at how much detail went into the choreography. I am not a fighter or a dancer and got lost in the fray (haha, *rolls eyes*) about whose body was where in relation to the other guy pretty quick. Where I’m sure Lloyd meant to give a crystal clear play-by-play of the action, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
When Justin and Hale finally meet face to face and sparks fly, I felt a little better about it all. Be forewarned, however. While their chemistry certainly leads to titillating exchanges and much posturing, when they’re finally fallen into something resembling an actual relationship, I found Justin and Hale acting and reacting in rather immature, selfish ways. Justin, for example, waffles between shutting Hale out of his life when someone close to Justin mysteriously dies. Hale, obviously smart enough to guess that Justin wants to break things off, responds by basically telling Justin it’s HALE who gets to decide whether or not Justin can break it off or not (the answer is “no,” obviously).
Despite the flaws, Lloyd managed to keep things just balanced enough and just developed enough outside the romance that I was disappointed there was no resolution for what will happen to Justin’s family, Justin’s handler (Scarecrow), Hale’s family (his daughter and his best friends who are raising her as their own), and what will happen with the Shadow Fray institution itself. As far as a first book in a series, it satisfied well enough, but didn’t leave me crazy to read any potential future installments immediately.
*GLAAD uses that they call the Vito Russo test to analyze LGBT characters in films. The three requirements to pass are, in simplified terms: 1) the film includes a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender; 2) the character is not solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity; 3) the character must matter—their removal would mean losing something quintessential to the plot.
A review copy of this book was provided by DSP Publications.