A. V. Mather
A. V. Mather is a Brisbane-based speculative fiction writer. You can follow her on Twitter @AVMather
I admit that I came to this YA fantasy/action novel with a little trepidation. Professional fighting – in this case, Muay Thai fighting – is just not my thing. The sum of my experience in this subject comes from watching Jet Li movies (of which I am especially fond), which puts me, maybe, a fingernail ahead of total ignorance.
Given that, I was delighted to find myself completely engaged by ‘Shadowboxer.’ Tricia Sullivan won me over with a story that is filled to bursting with impassioned characters, ruthless villains, mysterious places, and hungry ghosts. Her world is a richly layered place, filled with intrigue and action and woven through with a unique element of fantasy. This multicultural story is complex and follows two disparate characters whose lives are about to become enmeshed.
Latina American, Jade Barrera, is trying to channel her aggression into her dream of becoming a professional Muay Thai fighter, but when you’re a teenager with ‘angry bones’ things have a habit of getting out of control very quickly. She has already ruined her first big fight and then compounded the foul-up by punching out martial arts movie star, Tommy Zhang, who’d dissed the local stray cat. Now, she must do whatever it takes to win back the favour of Mr Big – her mentor and owner of Mr Big’s Combat Sports Emporium –for messing up his potential business relationship with Zhang. Unfortunately for Jade, redemption comes in the form of banishment to a gym and training camp in Thailand, run by Mr Big’s cousin.
For eight year old Burmese war refugee, Mya, life so far has been frightening and confusing. Taken from a Burmese prison camp to an orphanage in Thailand, she is now indebted to her benefactor, Mr Richards. But Mya is no ordinary peasant girl, nor is Mr Richards a kindly old man.
She has been specifically chosen by him, along with other children, for her ability to enter the Immortal Forest, a place of legend that exists between our world and the next. Mr Richards has been using gifted children and the Forest for illegal endeavours and has plans for Mya that will see him ascend to a position of unchallenged power.
Although their life experiences are literally worlds apart, when Jade and Mya come together they find a kinship that provides the strength that each needs to battle their demons. Mya’s subtle mysticism compliments Jade’s hard-edged urban style. The world of competitive fighting and the spiritualism of Thailand provide a rich background for their story. The ‘fish out of water’ scenario works well for both characters and it is satisfying to watch Jade’s character growth as the story develops. Beneath all of the action, there also lies a subtext of two girls trying to find their place within worlds dominated by controlling male figures.
A great deal of research has gone into this novel and the author has crafted her world with care. There are no false notes as the story moves between the backstreets of New York, the slums of Thailand and the fantasy world of the Immortal Forest. Combining all of these elements into a believable story and then telling it with the voices of a tough Latina teenager and a young Burmese orphan is no small task. Tricia Sullivan manages to make it look easy and this is a terrific story for YA fantasy readers who are looking for something different. So much in YA urban/supernatural fantasy centres on young protagonists who discover a hidden world and become warriors. ‘Shadowboxer’ delivers a fresh perspective on this theme which I found rewarding and refreshing.