An original novel based on C.S.Pacat’s Fence comic series, illustrated by Johanna The Mad
I read volume one of this series, Fence: Striking Distance, about a month ago and loved it. The love affair continues and I am very much hoping that another volume is in the works. In Fence: Disarmed, we return to the exclusive boys boarding school known as Kings Row and its fencing team. When last we left them, relationships among the members of the fencing team were fraught. Would they come together as a team or would personal relationships fall apart, taking the team with it? In volume two, coach Williams, team captain Harvard, heartthrob Aiden, intense Seiji, and black sheep Nicholas pack their bags for France and the opportunity to train with some of the best fencers in the world. Sarah Rees Brennan continues to write with heart, humor and great compassion for these teenage boys as they struggle to figure out who they are and whom they can trust.
At the end of volume one, the nearly lifelong friendship between Aiden and Harvard was on the rocks. Harvard had realized in volume one that he is attracted to guys, not girls, but he has no romantic experience at all, unlike his BFF Aiden, who is the campus heartbreaker. To help Harvard out, Aiden agrees to “practice date” him as a way to give him boyfriend lessons. But what Harvard doesn’t realize is that Aiden has always been in love with him. Harvard is also secretly in love with Aiden, but each thinks the other is not interested. Harvard wants to at least have a friendship with Aiden, thinking that Aiden finds him romantically repulsive. Aiden, on the other hand, is in a downward spiral because he has always loved Harvard and cannot handle being in the friend-zone any more. It doesn’t help that Aiden’s home life is so problematic. His model mother abandoned him in early childhood and dad is a super-wealthy serial philanderer. Beautiful young women come and go in his life, and they rarely form any kind of bond with Aiden. Aiden is a drop-dead-gorgeous guy, too. He has no trouble finding partners and goes through them like water. But now that he has come so close to being with his true love and losing it, Aiden becomes reckless and bitter. He avoids Harvard, neglects the fencing team, and is on the verge of being booted from both team and Kings Row. Will the opportunity to train in France bring Harvard and Aiden together or will it be the final crushing blow to their relationship?
The friendship between the freshmen odd couple, Seiji and Nicholas, grows and becomes even more interesting in volume 2. Seiji, like most boys at Kings Row, has wealthy, successful parents. He is also a brilliant fencer — maybe the best on the Kings Row team. Seiji has a couple of issues that complicate his life though. One is that he clearly has social skills problems and most likely has Asperger syndrome. Seiji does not get jokes, nor can he read social cues very well — something he does at least know about himself. He comes off as aloof and a bit terrifying to the other boys at Kings Row. He is intense and hyper-focused on being the absolute best at fencing and has little time for those who do not measure up to his high standards. This is where Nicholas comes in. Nicholas is a scholarship student at Kings Row and a member of the fencing team. He has raw talent but has not had the formal training of his teammates. He also comes from a single-parent, impoverished household. Nicholas and Seiji, as freshmen members of the team, are forced to become roommates. While Nicholas is fine with this, Seiji initially finds it completely exasperating. Volume 1 shows how these two very different boys become friends, largely because Nicholas refuses to be put off by Seiji or anyone else. He is a very empathetic character and pretty funny, too. He is one of the few boys who is not taken in by Aiden and has no problem showing how not impressed he is with Aiden. Seiji, for his part, warms up to Nicholas when he understands how mean some of the students are to Nicholas due to his economic status. Nicholas never gives up on trying to be friends with Seiji and Seiji does something very unexpected and funny in the name of justice for Nicholas. I love these two. I love that Seiji, while clearly a tough guy to know, is also a decent person who often misreads or is misread by others. I love that Nicholas is so chill and unflappable. Sure, he can be a bit thick sometimes, but he is a 15-year-old boy.
Anyway, Sieji’s second complication was introduced in volume 1 and is developed further in volume 2: his past relationship with a teen named Jesse Coste. Jesse is a brilliant fencer from a rival US boys school/team called Exton, and he is Seiji’s former fencing partner. The fact that these two do not attend the same school is significant. Jesse’s father is former US fencing champion and Olympian Robert Coste, and Jesse has had every opportunity to excel and advance in fencing ranks. The only person who could ever beat him was Seiji, but we learn that Jesse’s relationship with Seiji was not always friendly or healthy. Jesse has been trying to get Seiji back with him at Exton, but Seiji is learning that while he could easily be with the best of the best at Exton, there might be other more important considerations when choosing a school and team. Naturally, Jesse and the Exton team are also in France at the fencing camp, and this will lead to conflict between teams and boys. Yet, there is one fact that neither Jesse nor Seiji are aware of. We learned in volume 1 that Nicholas’ absent father is none other than Robert Coste! Nicholas and his mother are the only ones who know this, and Nicholas is not interested in sharing this information just yet. His goal is to become great — to be able to beat Seiji and Jesse, and then perhaps win the love of his missing dad.
The action at the French fencing camp takes place over a long weekend, and I thought that the story development and character development were really wonderful. Sarah Rees Brennan allows each boy to narrate his own chapters, so we can see how these guys misread each other, really care about one another, and are often terrified of hurting and losing those they love. I especially loved seeing how Seiji and Nicholas learn to become powerful advocates for themselves and each other. So much of this story is not about winning or losing but about taking control of the choices that are before you, not allowing yourself to be manipulated by others. This is a great message for teens!! I also love that being gay is totally normal in these books, and that the focus is on relationships, not whether or not being gay is ok, because of course it is! I really and truly hope that the Fence graphic novels continue to be turned into regular novels and that Sarah Rees Brennan will write them all!