First of all, apologies for a few things, specifically the last one before the Ghostbusters critique, which was a little spiralled and confusing. It was spiralled and confusing to me, and I wrote it, and rewrote it, and rewrote it.
Whenever we read books we often see ourselves in the characters. Although it’s never explicit, relatable characters are one of the subconscious reasons why we read certain books, why we retain certain books over others. Our favourites; those we draw inspiration from when times get hard, when our relationships falter, our jobs fail, our bodies quit. Although the story is a contender, for me it’s always been my relationship with the characters, from Katniss and Harry Potter, all the way up to Bridget Jones, Frodo Baggins and Lyra Belacqua.
These are all great examples, some of them are intentionally flat in order to promote relatability. They are also all primaries.
The character that came along at a crucial time in my life, when I began to read again, after almost a decade of schooling and reading for the sake of education, wasn’t a primary. Instead she was a unique soul, standing behind the primary, much like I stood behind my own friends at the time, ready for a quib or support, but uncertain and wary of the spotlight.
I wrote about Severna Park’s ‘Hand of Prophecy’ last year. Drawing comparison between nurses and those that stand upon the sand of the arena, how they find fulfilment and a sense of inner accomplishment to a greater degree than those sitting in the stands. Reminding myself, after a particularly tough few months of work, that Roosevelt was right, that “effort without error and shortcoming” is worthless.
Hallie was mentioned only as a footnote.
“Hallie, her secondary love-interest is the Amazonian princeps of the place; tall, shorn blonde hair, no curves…”
That’s just a literary snapshot.
The first time you see Hallie is when she’s talking to another character outside the primary conversation. Two secondary characters that have caught the eye of the protagonist, Freya’s, as she’s staring, intimidated by her environment and surrounded by strangers, all of them comfortable with regular displays of violence and death.
‘tall and shirtless, broad-shouldered- a fighter, darker than Troah, but lighter than me’.
The darker reference refers to skin tone as a form of genetic indication. The colour itself being blue rather than atypical human tones. All based on a scale of pure blood, Freya being considered a pureblood on account of her appearance.
Hallie’s first words, ‘Welcome to the goddamn arena’, startle the character, who, still feeling like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, stumbles into her, after leaving the office of her owner. The description of Hallie’s body; tall, flat-chested, covered in scars makes her interesting. And yet her nudity is environmental. The arena is kept artificially dry and humid, so in high summer everyone suffers. Hallie is the only woman there half naked, and she’s seemingly comfortable among strangers.
She’s like this for two reasons. One; she’s property, and while she’s treated as royalty, having her own room, and a measure of freedom, she is still property; resigned to kneeling, bowing and obeying whatever she’s asked to do. The second reason is obvious. She’s the lead fighter in the arena’s stable, she is ordered to fight to the death half a chapter later, a knife fight which is as bloody and vicious as one can imagine. She doesn’t need protecting, but she doesn’t threaten violence either.
I can relate to this projected capability for the physical, and how off-putting it can be. Being tall, broad-shouldered, and bottle-blonde (though I used to shave my head in college), with a boyish figure, my mom teasingly calls me a Scandinavian throwback. But, where I come from, being 5’11’’ barefoot is unnerving to a lot of people. What’s even worse is my willingness to physically push and carry things, in a society where manual labour is often suggested as a masculine trait, in anything except childcare.
Only recently a friend from work jokingly asked me if I carried a knuckleduster around with me. Which was something I found a little surprising, considering violence is something I’ve never embraced willingly. Being able to fight and wanting to fight are two very different things. Like Hallie, nicknamed “The Rock” years before Dwayne Johnson made it legendary, it’s assumed she’s a coiled spring, just existing to beat people to death on the arena sand, “the muscle” of the ensemble cast.
But we’re both much more than that.
In a society hung up on stereotypes and labels, a heavy handed, striding woman is quickly labelled anything from an atypical lesbian, to wanting to be a man, to a manhating feminazi. Wrong on all counts. The reality is, like all things, a lot more complex.
As the narrative develops, we follow Freya around, learning about the factions that exist within the indentured community, all vying for their continued survival and all teased with the phony promises of freedom. Through exposition we learn that Hallie’s lover and fellow fighter, Naritte, has recently died during combat, her death rigged in order for the owner to maximise his winnings, with no one aware of the situation until it was too late. This explains Hallie’s attitude towards those that run the arena, a contemptible, obedient, indifference, silently casting blame firmly at the feet of those she feels are responsible. When she’s ordered to give Naritte’s armour to a recently promoted fighter, her pleas of refusal fall on deaf ears and she realises just how little regard the free-women within their cage have for her. Her response? She flays the boy’s arm from wrist to shoulder in a training “accident”, mortally wounding him, and forcing Freya, as the new arena medic, to reveal her medicine that can free them all from chemical slavery.
What’s powerful in this reveal is that while Freya’s trying to save the boy, Troah and Hallie interrupt her, intent on silencing both of them and restoring the status quo.
‘Get the Thanas, Hallie… Kill him. I’ll take care of her’.
Hallie relents for a few minutes, but when it becomes apparent that Freya’s potion can’t save the boy she reluctantly follows Troah’s order, going so far as to wrap her hands around Freya’s neck. As they try and save the boy we hear about their plans, how they all want to be free, and how they’re willing to believe in something to accomplish that goal, no matter how crazy it might sound. But in the last second Freya succeeds and so the dynamic between the three of them changes, Hallie and Freya growing close as they understand they share the similar interests of survival, rather than power.
Later on, following more conflict, both Freya and Hallie end up back in Freya’s room. They’d originally ended up in Hallie’s, but with the walls still covered with posters and gifs of both Naritte and herself, she admits she’s embarrassed of ‘cheating’ on someone she loved, and still has feelings for.
The LGBT romance is deftly handled. Given their indentured status, heterosexual relationships are forbidden on account of any risk of conception. A situation that is commonplace in most prisons today, with normal self-labelling “straight” prisoners acquiring lovers, if only for the human desire for another human’s touch.
Following the night of passion comes Hallie’s biggest challenge. It’s fight day. And Freya’s job as a triage medic, in an arena where people fight to the death, turns out to be just as bloody and chaotic as imagined. Hallie spends a good portion of the time calming Freya down while she treats, and euthanizes, the best that she can, the clock slowly counting down on both protagonist and reader, until it’s Hallie’s turn to leave the sidelines.
‘Get yourself ready, Hallie’.
Fighting against Rampage, an ordinary looking boy despite the name, her only words are ‘I’ll see you,’ spoken to the general group and no one in particular, before she’s out beneath the dropgate and onto the sand.
In Rome, most gladiator fights were theatrical affairs. Slow-building, flamboyant, crowd-pleasing. For reasons not really explained (this isn’t exactly Tolkien writing here) Hallie abandons that plan and tries to win in less than two minutes. A strategy that backfires terribly, resulting in some of the most tense page-turning I’ve ever had to endure, as we get Freya’s helpless perspective on the whole affair; the slave that’s dying yet still has to fight, the owner’s greed as he bets against his own property, and her own hope at freedom, tangible, but just out of reach for all of them. All of this while Hallie is frantically parrying and avoiding her stronger, faster opponent, hell-bent on killing her with the same ferocity as she does him.
Eventually Hallie wins, with some pro-wrestling level outside interference, and the reader breathes a sigh of relief. But it’s never clear why Hallie abandoned the strategy the trainers had so painstakingly drilled into her? Maybe it’s because she wanted to prove to them that, for just once, they didn’t own her? Out on the sand, out where she’s free. Free to live, or die, but free to choose.
Thankfully she lives, and after a long third act, with a surprisingly low death-toll, they all escape into a city on the verge of occupation by a rival species (it’s a subplot I won’t bore you all with, but needless to say the chaos generated creates a lot of holes for runaways to run through).
In the end the three of them; Freya, Hallie and Troah, are all waiting to leave the planet. Hallie’s hair still short, but dyed black. All three hiding in plain sight, and Hallie preoccupied in wearing free-woman clothes, after eight years of virtually naked combat.
‘Watching Hallie as a free woman was like standing by while she struggled with the basics of swimming in a whirlpool. Nothing in the ring had trained her for the casual determination she needed to smile past a dozen disinterested emigration officials… terrified. Almost speechless. Discovering how scared she was made her even more scared’.
So, who is Hallie? And who is she to me?
Hallie’s the athletic woman we all know. But, by her dimensions, her opinions and her physicality, her portrayal in, what is still a patriarchal world, is often depicted as being, at best, an alternative to the social norm. Even in the Western World, in 2016, such stereotypes are still prevalent. Hallie can’t win her match without help, despite being lorded as the best fighter in the stable. An interesting outcome considering the direction of the book, the genre of the story and the sexuality of the author. But I guess there had to be balance somewhere, or maybe the point really was that freedom can come in a hundred different forms, with a hundred different outcomes, and not all of them are positive?
And who is she to me?
Well, she is the person that I turn to when I’m having problems trying to live my life. The similarities are scary, not least of them being the fact that when I first read the book I didn’t know I’d end up theatre nursing. Wearing blues every day, often up to my ankles in pee and gore, a physical job, up close and personal, with both friends and enemies, the only thing lacking being the crowds of spectators and the sand beneath my feet.
Other comparisons abound, as well. Any woman having to brave airport security might attest to the unease at being frisked, following a trip through the metal detectors. When I was in Israel I was temporarily detained, led away and told to partially strip, until they discovered the metal in my bra (???) and let me go.
But I think the situation that gives me the most fear is when you walk into a room for the first time, in front of strangers. It can be a boardroom or a bar, but if you’re a woman alone you will turn heads. Whether it’s for the right reasons, depends on the situation, but it will often happen regardless. And I just have to straighten by spine tall and smile. Safe in the knowledge that I have to ability to protect myself should I need to, that I’m terrified on the inside, that small talk scares me more than arterial bleeding. But I try to use this literary comparison to remind myself that following on from all the low points in my life has made me a better person. That if I can survive them, I can survive the here and now, and thrive. Not as the most chatty, or with the best hair, or the biggest boobs, but with capable intelligence and fortitude.
And if worst comes to worst, I have the confidence that I have the ability to quietly dispose of them in an alley behind the building, before moving on to the next!