Jade is a young mixed martial arts fighter. When she’s in the cage she dominates her opponents—but in real life she’s out of control. After she has a confrontation with a Hollywood martial arts star that threatens her gym’s reputation, Jade’s coach sends her to a training camp in Thailand for an attitude adjustment. Hoping to discover herself, she instead uncovers a shocking conspiracy. In a world just beyond our own, a man is stealing the souls of children to try and live forever.
Not many young adult novels feature graphic mixed martial arts fights. Of course, not many have a black female heroine costarring with a trafficked preteen refugee from Myanmar… Shadowboxer, in quite a bold statement of intent, does exactly that.
Those characters are one of the best things about this novel. Shadowboxer has an incredibly diverse racially diverse cast and doesn’t comment on this; it’s just a fact that Sullivan has integrated into her narrative neatly, the way diversity is integrated in real life: largely without explicit comment. Indeed, the races of various characters, notably our protagonist Jade, are not spelled out until partway through the novel, although hints are dropped; and racial prejudices are commented on more, not endorsed. There is also depiction of multiple cultures; significant research has clearly been put into learning about specific aspects of both Thai and American fight scenes, and Sullivan isn’t interested in trying to give a full picture of Thai culture – that’s not what Jade is interacting with – but this specific element of it, and that depiction seems a brilliant one.
Shadowboxer does, however, struggle with the representation of spoken language; Sullivan writes dialogue neither phonetically nor using dialect, but simply using broken English, such as the Myanma Mya when speaking English. This can come across problematically, with Shadowboxer at times falling into the trap of representing poor English as related to education or intelligence, and otherwise as simply unbelievable as even our bilingual characters are presented as essentially monolingual.
These issues aren’t, of course, what define the characters; rather, they are defined by their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Hence Jade is defined by her martial arts and fight training, and her rage (which is given a very unfortunate backstory around an abusive father); Mya is defined by her seeming calm and her extraordinary abilities; and so on. Shadowboxer is very interested in self-definition, self-invention and the possibility to break out of one’s seeming destiny; hence, perhaps, the idea that Jade’s anger and violence is a direct result of her father’s actions, and her attempts to break out of that pattern are her own agency struggling against “destiny”. This makes it slightly frustrating that the villain is so paper-thin and straightforwardly villainous, of course…
The plot of Shadowboxer is interesting in an intricate-but-perhaps-weak way. That is, the attempts to bring the martial arts side of the plot into line with the side of the plot around Mya and Mr Richards feels clunky and disconnected; Sullivan is trying to marry not only two different plots that don’t really fit together (Jade feels to the reader, as well as to herself, as if she has no real role in events), but also multiple sets of issues together, that simply don’t fit into this narrative. It’s an ambitious attempt to address an awful lot, but the plot simply cannot support the intentions; it ends up more of a mess, albeit an interesting one.
The book does have one huge strength, though, and that is in having some of the best fight scenes I have ever read. Sullivan is herself a martial artist – in the sense of the term that means “fighter”, rather than “practitioner of a specific system with little combat application” – and it shows, in Shadowboxer; her understanding of the dynamics of a fight, of the way rules work and don’t work, of the pure physicality of combat, comes across incredibly strongly in the novel, as each fight scene is a visceral, brutal, but also clear thing, something the reader can visualise, understand, and indeed mentally construct and watch for themselves. That is actually something that spills over into the rest of the writing style; Shadowboxer is compulsively readable, dragging the reader through the novel, with a prose style that, even where the plot is tangled or frustrating, won’t let go of the reader. It’s not all high-adrenaline but it is continuously fast-paced, and that really works with the rather stripped-down straightforward style on display here that engages all the senses and keeps the reader trapped in the narrative.
From the biggest strength to the biggest weakness. Shadowboxer has, I am reliably informed, been accused of transphobia; and that’s not entirely unfair as an accusation. Sullivan, in writing about mixed martial arts and the Thai fight scene, discusses issues of gender and talks about ladyboys a little; the problem is largely, however, not about the ladyboys per se, but the tiny time given to the issues. Because of the way their presentation is minimalised, we end up with a very odd image of ladyboys, a stereotypical one, and one that at the end of the novel dives straight into some of the worst images of trans* individuals; this is clearly not the intent of the novel, but the presentation in Shadowboxer does end up subconciously drawing rather too heavily on transphobic imagery.
Shadowboxer, then, is not the most englightened work, despite Sullivan’s clearly good intent and research; but it is a strong, readable and diverse novel all the same.
DoI: Review based on a final copy provided on request by the publisher. Shadowboxer is out today, 9th October, from Ravenstone Books.