This is an original novel based on C.S.Pacat’s Fence comic series, illustrated by Johanna The Mad.
This YA novel came to me courtesy of fellow Cannonballer CoffeeShop Reader, who sent it as part of the 2020 Holiday Book Exchange. I know she has reviewed the original series of graphic novels upon which it is based, and I just want to say again THANK YOU FOR THIS! I had never heard of the series or this author before, but I am definitely in for the follow up, which is due out this May. In Fence: Striking Distance, Sarah Rees Brennan takes some typical teen story tropes and gives them a much needed “zhuzh.” It’s hip, it’s funny, and its four main characters have interesting, complicated relationships that feed the plot.
Fence: Striking Distance takes place during the first months of the school year at an elite, all-male boarding school known as Kings Row. The four main characters — Nicholas, Seiji, Aiden, and Harvard — are all members of the Kings Row fencing team, and their coach is committed to bringing her team to the level of greatness it deserves. Coach Williams believes that in order to reach their potential, her fencers must stop hyper-focusing on their own individual development and must instead work on team building. She wants her players to know each other and trust each other, but personality conflicts and secrets will be major obstacles to achieving this goal.
Two sets of relationships are central to the novel. First there is the duo of Harvard and Aiden. Team Captain Harvard is on board with the coach’s plan. He is an upper classman, and he is known, liked and respected both among teammates and at Kings Row. Harvard’s best friend and teammate Aiden is a different story. He is the exact opposite of a “team player” and is much more concerned with his love life than fencing. Aiden can be brilliant on the piste, but he is unreliable. Aiden is sort of the Lothario of Kings Row, and, in one of the sharp updates that writer Brennan makes to the teen coming of age/romance novel, he is also gay. The fact that he is gay is not a big deal to anyone in the novel, which is kind of refreshing to see. Boys literally throw themselves at him, as he is gorgeous and he knows it. Aiden is a love ‘em and leave ‘em guy, and one of the running jokes in the novel is that he can’t remember anyone’s name. What we discover though is that Aiden has a secret from his best friend Harvard; he is in love with him. The storyline featuring Harvard and Aiden is familiar to anyone who enjoys romances — the friend you fall in love with but can’t tell because you don’t want to ruin the friendship. But, since Brennan provides the points of view of all four main characters, we also know what Harvard feels. As a 56-year-old woman, I found myself surprised at how interested I was in this love story amongst teens, and one of the reasons I can’t wait for volume two is that I have to see how this is going to turn out.
The other significant relationship is between Seiji and Nicholas. They are freshman, and they are quite the odd couple. Seiji, like most other Kings Row students, comes from a wealthy family, and he is a fencing prodigy. Like Aiden, he balks at “team building” exercises, but in Seiji’s case, it is because he is so devoted to perfection that team building seems like an unnecessary distraction. In Sieji’s opinion, if his teammates would just commit themselves to personal fencing perfection as he does, they would win every title out there. Seiji and Nicholas are roommates, and they could not be more different. Nicholas is a scholarship student from the wrong side of the tracks. He doesn’t have the nice clothes or cool hair that other Kings Row students have, but he is a good fencer, a diamond in the rough. Yet the class and skill differences between the boys are less dramatic than the disparity in their social skills. Seiji is aloof and distant, very Mr. Spock-like in demeanor (perhaps on the autism spectrum). He often does not understand what his peers are talking about, as he is quite a literal thinker. Nicholas is much more empathetic and keeps a good sense of humor about his roommate. He also takes the coach’s teamwork goals to heart and decides that he and Seiji must become friends. This will lead to some hilarious interactions and a possible crime. Nicholas is a fun character because he doesn’t get flustered much by the snooty, snotty boys around him. He’s pretty down to earth, but he does have a secret about his family that he guards vigilantly and that he worries might destroy any budding friendship with Seiji. This is another plot point that will, I assume, be resolved in the next book, and I am very interested to see how it plays out.
The book ends with characters learning things about themselves and their teammates that seem to indicate that the coach’s team building just might be a success. And yet, we know that there are secrets that could shatter what has been built. Overall, this was a really fun read. It’s reminiscent of a soap opera, and let’s face it, there are times when you just might need that kind of escape. Brennan injects humor throughout but also treats her characters’ family and personal problems seriously and skillfully. I found that I genuinely liked the characters, even the kind of obnoxious ones. This book was a delightful surprise. Two thumbs up.