Recent reading: The Collar and the Cavvarach by Annie Douglass Lima

This is the first book of a series; a sort of alternate history story based in a world that’s pretty nearly like our world, IF we’d kept two crucial social institutions from Classical Rome: widespread slavery (not race-based) and gladiatorial combat.

Bensin, a teenage slave and martial artist, is desperate to see his little sister freed. But only victory in the Krillonian Empire’s most prestigious tournament will allow him to secretly arrange for Ellie’s escape. Dangerous people are closing in on her, however, and Bensin is running out of time. With his one hope fading quickly away, how can Bensin save Ellie from a life of slavery and abuse?

This is a MG or youngish YA story. If we’re going with the definition that in YA, a young protagonist takes an irrevocable step from childhood into adulthood, then I’d call this story middle grade, because Bensin doesn’t really do that. So, I’d say this story is at the top end of MG.

I haven’t been reading many new-to-me books lately — I’m too busy with my own stuff and don’t need the distraction of a five-book 2000-page epic fantasy series just now. That’s one reason I picked up this story. I thought a shortish novel, fast-paced, with a pretty simple, direct plot and a happy or at least happy-ish ending, would be a good choice. This novel looked like it would fit the bill.

Good call! I really liked this story, which was all of the above.

The Pros:

The world is a fun one to read about.

As long you don’t sit there trying to poke holes in it, the world works fine. It’s a contemporary-ish setting with lots of slavery plus gladiatorial combat, but just go with it. I mentioned Rome because the attitudes toward slavery and gladiators seem similar, but you won’t get anything of the actual flavor of Classical Rome here. Cars and computers and lawnmowers, normal clothing and pretty standard modern architecture as far as the reader can tell, so it all seems pretty much like normal life, basically. This is actually a secondary world; the story takes place in a large empire, a lot of slaves are taken in conquest, but that’s all background.

The characters are engaging.

Bensin really, really wants to get his little sister out of slavery. That’s a clear, overriding, highly sympathetic motivation. His methods for getting this to work may be a trifle, let’s say, na├»ve, but given his background, it seems reasonable that he doesn’t know how to do this in a more sensible way.

Bensin is engaging and earnest and very good at a sport called Cavara Shil, which uses a dull weapon and padding. Gladiators use the same weapon, but sharp and without the padding, but Bensin doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about that — he’s involved in the sport, not the real combat.

Steene is a cavara coach who’s down on his luck and rather impulsively decides to purchase a young slave who can help him teach the sport and whom he can train to the top levels of competition, thus raising his own reputation. He’s a nice guy, the sort of person who doesn’t approve of slavery, but here he is, with this kid to train. He doesn’t know about Bensin’s little sister, and Bensin certainly isn’t going to mention that his primary loyalty is to his sister, not to his owner.

The writing is excellent.

The writing isn’t showy, but it’s smooth, with good pacing throughout. We get scenes from Steene’s pov as well as Bensin’s pov, and both work. I’m glad the author didn’t shy away from adding an adult pov to a MG story. That was a very suitable technique here and worked well.

The descriptions of cavara shil and the tournaments were a lot of fun. The last tournament, I thought I could see how the author was going to have to make it come out, but I wasn’t sure she could sell it. But she did. That scene was exciting and believable and satisfying. I actually did stay up just a bit later than usual to finish that scene, and I never stay up late because I always get up early, so that was very unusual for me.

The Cons:

As I think I’ve mentioned before, a lot of MG fiction reads too young for my personal preferences, particularly if the protagonist is too impulsive, too foolish, or both. Bensin comes close to that. I had a sporadic but intense desire to shake him and yell, “JUST TELL HIM THE TRUTH,” much like the genie in Disney’s Aladdin. While his background means he probably couldn’t figure out a good escape plan for Ellie, he definitely should have realized he couldn’t trust the person he paid to cut off her collar. If he’d made an attempt at putting together a reasonable Plan B for if and when Plan A blew up in his face, that would have been nice. Telling Steene the truth might well have constituted a reasonable Plan B, and I’m not sure why Bensin never thought of that.

I will add, he was VERY rushed when it came to the last-minute escape attempt, for good reasons. Given another month to think things through, he might have some up with a more complete Plan A or a reasonable Plan B.

Now, this next bit isn’t a critique; it’s an observation.

In a world like this, there ought to be an Underground Railroad type of thing; more than one, probably. I can’t see how there could fail to be this sort of quasi-organization, given that there have to be a lot of people like Steen, who don’t approve of slavery on moral grounds; and this is a big empire with a complex society; and there are places for slaves to theoretically run to — the countries that aren’t in the empire o aren’t tightly controlled by the empire.

There is no reason why Steene would know much or anything about that sort of organization, but if there’s any sort of political movement against slavery within the empire, he ought to know about that. Again, there’s no reason why Bensin would know anything real about an Underground Railroad, but I can’t imagine why there aren’t rumors and stories about that kind of organization. In fact, there ought to be rumors like that even if there isn’t such an organization.

If there IS a movement like that, then Officer Shiga ought to be a member. In fact, he ought to be an important conductor.

In the story, Officer Shiga is a police officer who’s got a fundamentally sound sense of justice, but who nevertheless enforces unjust laws. I think he might be my favorite character. If this were *my* story, he would be a good cop, but he would also be a conductor in some important anti-slavery movement or organization, because that would be just a neat thing to do.

And, since I haven’t read the other two books in the series, maybe he is! I can hope for that, at least.

I’m reading the second book now. I’m just past the setup, and yep, this one is also obviously going to be a fast-paced exciting story. Bensin’s certainly in a pickle. I think I know how he’s going to get out of it, and I’m looking forward to seeing if I’m right.

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