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The best magician trick I’ve seen in years

Shape, verb and flavour die,
as well as desire, willpower, stupor.
The idea of me you’ve made in your mind dies as well,
so you better think about nothing at all
while I kill your soul

Afterhours – POP

Boredom, Safety and our souls

Many many years ago (I had just finished my first high school year, to give you an idea) I found myself talking about music with a girl that used to play bass in my father’s band. In particular, we were talking about the song Pop from the Italian rock band Afterhours, whose opening lyrics lines roughly translate to the ones I quoted at the beginning of this post.

I remember her question: “What do you think it refers to? What is it that kills our soul?” Strange question to ask a teenager, I have to admit, but I also like to think that I was already more mature than the average 15-years-old. For sure back then I did. And Lucia was a major in psychology, so I trust she knew what she was doing.

But maybe I wasn’t so much different from your average teenager, because I went for a plain and simple answer: drugs. Had I been asked the question nowadays, I’d probably said “depression”, or maybe “safety”. When I asked Lucia about her opinion on the matter, she thought about it for a bit and then went for an answer that struck me. She said “boredom”.

Master of the Arena

It’s been almost twenty years, but I still find her answer striking in her simplicity and accuracy. I found myself thinking about it a lot lately, and elaborating a bit more about it. If you’re wondering if this happened because of a book I’ve read lately, well, you know me very well. The book in question is Master of the Arena, the sequel to Headspace from J.D. Edwin. And since you know me, you know how much I loved that book.

I was so curious and impatient to know the story of Nas and how did she turn in what appeared to be a heartless monster. I’m a sucker for people that snap and turn bad, after all, even though I’m quite tired of the “simple and naive guy/girl turned bad because of an incredible combination of bad happenings, most of which would have people snap halfway through” trope. Yes, I’m talking to you, Joker. And to you as well, Maleficent.

I was just so curious to see whether or not Master of the Arena passed my test. But as soon as I began reading, I was struck by that revelation about boredom, and in a certain way safety. I had already had a few thoughts about it as I read the end of Headspace, but in Headspace’s case I was already overwhelmed with the rest of the book. Master of the Arena, on the other hand, begins straight with Nas’ time in the endless loop at the end of the games.

After a few iterations of the loop, the champions are well aware that what they’re experiencing is not real life. Astra figured it out at the end of Headspace, and Nas does it at the beginning of Master of the Arena. But it takes a while for both of them to let go, because it feels so safe inside: days pass by uneventfully, peacefully, safely. I’m sure it’s quite a welcome change after going through a deadly game, but it can’t last for too long or it will kill a part of them.

After some time in the loop Nas gets out and, quite surprisingly, decides to go back to her family. It doesn’t last long, though, because we find out quite early in the book that she was a Kol, a category of people born with a birthmark on their back that identifies them as kind of outcasts. Nas tries to hold on as much as she can, but eventually she can’t stand it anymore and she accepts the offer to spend eternity in the Arena.

And finally we get the behind the scenes we’ve been waiting for since last year. Life inside the arena is not much better than the one on her planet, but at least the demigods and the other champions don’t consider her inferior only because of a physical trait of her. She finds it hard to adapt to that life, harder than I would have imagined, but she’s got nothing to lose at this point and thus she holds on, slowly adapting to her new life as the memories of the past one fade away.

Reading this book was quite an experience, so much different from what I expected. Not only because I read it all during my vacation all by myself, but because I remember Headspace as a book full of twists and emotions. In comparison, nothing seems to be happening in Master of the Arena. I’m going to make a few considerations mixed with mild spoilers for the book, and since it’s still a new release I think it’s better if I hide it in its own section. Open it only if you don’t care about spoilers.

A monster is born

As I said, I was expecting the fierce side of Seven, the one we loved to hate in Headspace, to pop up somewhere in the second half of the book, and to happen as a sort of her snapping after experiencing something strong, during the game or after that. I was surprised when I approached the end of the book and nothing like that had happened yet.

Then I finished the book, thought back at what I had just read…and it hit me. The kind of realisation I love to have and that makes me appreciate the book I’ve just read. Nas’ path is perfect as it is, and for two main reasons.

First, emotions are clearly more vivid when you’re playing a deadly game in which the fate of your entire planet is at stake than when you spend eternity “behind the scene”. The perception of the game as a normal inhabitant of planet Earth is pure evil, and consequently the face of the game must be a terrible being. On the other side of the fence, instead, it’s just business. Whether it makes it better of worse is up to the reader to decide, but I think it was perfectly depicted in this second book.

Second, Nas doesn’t transform out of spite for the different forms of life in the galaxy . She does that because she thinks it’s the right thing to do for the champions. She noticed that many of them are outcasts like her or people standing out from the rest, and she feels that she has no choice but to grant them a good eternity. Again, it’s debatable if she’s right or not, but this is what makes her a great villain in book 1. She really believes in what she does, and nothing will convince me that after more than twenty editions of the game she doesn’t enjoy it in the slightest.

Was taking over the game mastering the correct thing to do? Did she do it out of pure selflessness or was something in it for her too? I think the book doesn’t provide a clear answer, only a few bricks so that we can build our own opinion. Personal, as a fan of grey moral areas in narrative, I loved of the author played with the ambiguity.

The trick(s)

One of the first takeaway of any narrative-writing class is that villains think they’re the hero of their own story, and J.D. Edwin did some real magic here: she convinced us as well, at least for a while.

This book reads so much different from its predecessor, and even though I was expecting something different after Headspace it delivered another masterfully (no pun intended) crafted story. The one thing the two books have in common is an interesting premise that lures you in, only for the various themes in the books to capture you and having you turn one page after the other.

And if we think about it, it is good to see that this book wasn’t yet another iteration of Headspace, but presented it under a completely new light. I’m sure J.D. Edwin could have written tens of Headspace-like books, one for each champion in the galaxy, and they would have been awesome in their own way. But it’s true that the easiest way to fall into boredom is to repeat the same pattern over and over again, and boredom is a soul killer, one of the worst ones.

Published inReviewsStorytelling

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