Book Review : Erika Krouse - Contenders (2015)
I REALLY like corrupt cop stories, whether it's on film or in books. It's something that never fails to put a smile on my face. I can't help it. Something to do with my fascination with power and the absolute terror I feel in front of authority figures. I can imagine how annoying they are to real cops though. Lots of people recommend me martial arts novels because I've practiced, competed and coached for more than a decade now. Some martial arts stories are best enjoyed by non-martial arts practitioners though, like Erika Krouse's Contenders. There's definitely is a good story in there, I just struggled to suspend my disbelief all along because of the martial arts stuff.
So, Nina Black is a misunderstood badass fighting random strangers on the street for the content of their wallet. She takes advantage of her good looks to lure predatory assholes into vulnerable situations and beat them senseless. One day, she pulls the wrong number and assault an obsessive cop named Cage Callahan. Not only Callahan wants his money back, but he's also a fearsome MMA contender making a comeback, looking to get his dignity back from Nina. She'll have to step out of her low profile comfort zone and evolve if she wants to survive her next encounter with Cage Callahan, a man who doesn't leave second chances to people who best him in competition.
I get that Nina Black is supposed to be an empowering character. I really get that. Thing is with empowering characters, they're supposed to be doing things you should aspire to do. Fighting random people on the street for wallets is not something you should do. It will get you either killed or jailed, whether you're a man or a woman. It's said in Contenders' blurb that fighting is Nina's passion and that stealing was just sponsorship, but I beg to differ. If Nina's passion was fighting, she'd get herself in the ring/cage where there are rules and slightly better money than wallets and get a long and successful career. She has more of a thing for danger and fighting random strangers on the street just happens to be its most unadulterated form. Anything could go sideways at any given moment when you're picking on strangers.
"What have you been doing for training?" Jackson asked. "Besides preying on people."
It's too bad, because there's a good story in there. Erika Krouse can definitely write and despite the reckless juvenile bravado of her protagonist Nina Black, she really tapped into important aspects of who martial artists are and why they do what they do. Nina has this endearing unspoken vulnerability about her. She brags, talks smack and recklessly challenges people, but it always rings hollow. Krouse really nailed the concept that this kind of behavior emerges from a crooked sense of self. The wonderful thing about martial arts is that it trains you at undertaking challenges. The more Nina is fighting, the more she is confronted to her limitations and defines who she is as a woman and what she actually cares for. So, THAT was really well done.
I would recommend Contenders to people who actually don't do martial arts. And perhaps only to people who don't WANT to get into competitive martial arts because it gives an unrealistic portrait of its real life efficiency. I wouldn't advocate beating people up for wallets more than I would advocate base jumping for a Happy Meal. Gotta give credit where credit is due though and Contenders was not all bad. It illustrated with a great sense of nuance how martial arts are a sneaky good development tool for troubled people and Erika Krouse wrote a protagonist that was inherently interesting despite herself. Contenders probably is a novel you want to make you own opinion on, because I can't really decide whether I liked it or not. It had both very good and very bad moments.