Title: Shadow Fray (Shadow Fray: Book One)
Author: Bradley Lloyd
Publisher: DSP Publications
Length: 248 Pages
At a Glance: Gritty urban science fiction meets one of my favorite tropes, enemies to lovers, and the incredible pacing coupled with a slow burn romance gives this story a delicious heat.
Reviewed By: Ben
Blurb: Family is worth fighting for—and family doesn’t always mean blood.
No one knows what calamity poisoned the earth and decimated the human population, but living close to the toxic ground means illness and death. Justin is determined to keep his twin sister and younger brother from that fate—no matter what he has to do. To earn enough to keep his family safe in a high-rise, Justin enlists in a deadly sport called Shadow Fray. He quickly finds himself in over his head, especially when he is scheduled to face the most dangerous player.
Hale—who competes as Black Jim—knows he won’t be on top forever, despite his skills. He fights for a better life for his daughter, but his time is running out as Shadow Fray becomes increasingly lethal. Something about the newest fighter intrigues him, but does he dare defy his masters to investigate? Justin and Hale will clash in the ring, while beyond it the powerful elite and the crumbling world seem determined to keep them apart. If they can find common ground, they might have a chance to fight for their futures.
Review: Gritty science fiction meets one of my favorite tropes, enemies to lovers, and the incredible pacing coupled with a slow burn romance gives this story a delicious heat. Set in the grungy backdrop of a future Earth, our protagonists are underground fighters, but in a figurative sense, not literal. The soil and air are poisoned, and everyone who wants some sort of reasonable life expectancy lives above ground. Men are becoming sterile, while the birthrate of women plummets.
The politics and plot of this work are stellar. Instead of enslaving women, as you’d think our history would suggest the future ‘us’ would do if ovaries became endangered, their society gave women more rights and protections under the law than men, to protect them but also give them a better quality of life. That being said, there’s still sexism and there’s a major culture push for everyone to have as many healthy babies as possible, even though it seems Earth is doomed.
Justin lives with his sister and his differently-abled brother, trying to scrape up enough to send his brother to a special school. His sister’s status is higher than his, so when he gets into trouble with the cage fights he’s doing for money on the side, she has to bail him out. These events eventually lead to Justin being set up to take the fall in an extremely harrowing shadow fray match against one of the best underground fighters in the world, Black Jim.
Black Jim, or Hale, may be one of the best fighters there is, but in the current political climate his life isn’t easy. His daughter can’t live with him, because it’s a risky business, and even though his handler tries to protect him, Hale has people watching and coordinating his every move. It surprises everyone, including Hale, when he takes a shine to the new kid on the block, Justin.
There weren’t any plot surprises for me, but I enjoyed the fast pacing and rough diction, and while I also enjoyed the history and the snatches of politics, part of me was having a hard time visualizing the shape and feel of the world. Nothing was too strange or alien. It reminded me a bit of a less crazy (and, obviously, gayer) version of The Hunger Games.
There were quite a few gay issues explored. Both Justin and Hale kept some aspects of their sexuality hidden from society, and at one point, Hale hired a transwoman sex worker. There were quite a few transwomen in the world, and part of me understood that being the case because ciswomen were rarer, so being (or being with) a transwoman was seen as a necessary piece of society. I could speculate on whether or not Justin and Hale were gay or bisexual, but I don’t think that mattered. I do think Hale took advantage of transwomen being more accepted. He could get away with lying with a transwoman under the public eye, to an extent.
Another issue explored was the control the government had on male reproduction. Women seemed to be freer to sleep around while men were frowned upon if they had sex with other men… which I’m thinking would mean about seventy-five percent of the population isn’t getting their needs met. Is that an excuse for some of the violence and nastiness we see as the result of that? No. But it is thought provoking.
On the downside of things, I wasn’t particularly invested in either Hale or Justin, but I was interested in Justin’s sister. I was kinda curious how she could sustain that haughty attitude and get her bro out of trouble one way, but she was still living barely above ground and wasn’t able to improve their lives much. Not only that, she seems pretty sexually carefree, considering procreation should be a big deal. It made me curious how that all rolled down, politically and scientifically, but we don’t get much of an explanation besides class discrimination. What would happen to a woman in that society if they didn’t want to have children?
So many questions, but I have a feeling this ride isn’t over yet. Buckle up!
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