by Taran Matharu
Series: Contender #1
Also in this series: The Challenger, The Champion
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: June 4, 2019
Genres: Young Adult, Science Fiction
I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Throughout history, people have vanished with no explanation. A group of teenagers are about to discover why.
Cade is settling into a new boarding school, contemplating his future, when he finds himself transported to another realm. He soon discovers their new world is populated with lost remnants from the past: prehistoric creatures, ancient relics, and stranger still — people. Overwhelmed by his new surroundings, Cade has little time to adjust, for soon he and his fellow classmates are forced to become contenders in a brutal game, controlled by mysterious overlords.
But who are these beings and why did they choose these teens? Cade must prepare for battle . . . because hiding is not an option.
Content warnings: View Spoiler »
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked up this book, but it certainly wasn’t this! And that’s not a bad thing – this is a wild ride, a sort of mashup between The Hunger Games, Jurassic Park, and The Martian. In addition, this book is ownvoices – Cade is South Asian, as is the author – and has a diverse mix of supporting characters, including one who’s Deaf.
Framed for a crime at his last private school, Cade has been ordered to spend a year at a reform boarding school. He figures he’ll survive by keeping his head down. All that changes when he, along with several other boys from his school, are transported to an alien planet and forced to fight for their lives. With new dangers around every corner, Cade must figure out how – if – they can get home.
“In the past, he might have played it safe, but now he wasn’t so sure. Pleading guilty had been playing it safe … and he’d give anything to change that.
But here, now? This was his best hope of giving himself a fighting chance. He’d roll the dice.”
This is a sort of man-vs-wilderness book that reminds me a lot of The Martian, just with more action. Cade soon discovers that, yeah, his strength he’s developed at the reform school thanks to endless burpees is helpful, but it’s his brain that’s his biggest tool. Whether it’s something he picked up from his history professor father or the fact that he (gasp!) actually thinks before he acts, Cade’s preferred solution to any problem is to outwit rather than out-brawn. A large part of Cade’s character development comes from how his interactions with the other characters change as the book goes on. At the start, he’s almost a side character in his own story, passive and unwilling to do too much to call attention to himself. As the story progresses, he slowly realizes that his best chance at survival is to stand up for himself.
The worldbuilding, while a bit disjointed, is where the book really shines. There’s a fun bit of mystery – how did they get there? where are they? – and a bit of suspense added by the countdown clock courtesy of the Codex, a floating robot that follows Cade around and gives some background on the various things he finds. Those added historical details are fun. Want to know about suturing wounds without thread? We gotcha! What Romans used instead of toilet paper? Yup!
A lot of time is spent on world-building, so while we get some character development for Cade, there’s not much time spent on the secondary characters. The first few chapters alternate between the planet and flashbacks to Cade’s time at the school, which serve as introductions to the other boys, but besides that there’s not too much time spent on them which left me rather ambivalent about what would happen to them. And while everything leads up to a big climactic battle, the ending of the book was a bit of a letdown. Yes, we get some answers, but it felt more like a teaser for the next book than a resolution to this one.
Overall, I wanted a bit more from the story than was there, but I enjoyed it enough to give it 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for the next book in the series!