Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee is a book that pairs perfectly with a Friday evening after a long week and your biggest bowl of popcorn. It’s a fast-moving YA debut that cuts out the filler and leaves a lean, entertaining, action-movie-like tale. In fact, the fight scenes were so well done that I sometimes felt as though I was watching them instead of reading them.
Carr “The Raptor” Luka is a talented 17-year-old up-and-comer in an MMA-style sport called zeroboxing. The twist? The “zero” in zeroboxing is for “zero gravity.” Carr has been training to go pro since he was seven, finally making the move from Earth to orbit on Valtego Station a year and a half ago. However, as he begins the final fight in his current contract, he isn’t sure whether management will bother to renew him, let alone ever give him a shot at a title. And then everything changes. Thrown into the limelight by a spectacular fight and a highly marketable look and story, Carr finds himself with an incredible offer from the association’s head, a fancy PR agent, and fresh set of problems that his growing fame only intensifies.
At its heart, Zeroboxer is a sports drama, but the science fiction component isn’t simply window dressing. While the futuristic setting does provide the foundation for some fantastic zero-G fight choreography—of which the book delivers in spades—that’s not the only reason for the genre mash-up. It also makes space for the author to explore the potential societal ramifications of a time in which humanity and genetic engineering have extended their reach. On Earth, gene therapy has become common and glasses little more than a vintage accessory, but on Mars, gene editing has gone further. Residents of the red planet have long utilized genetic modification to help them adapt to their environment’s colder temperatures and punishing radiation. A side effect is that it has created even more visible physical differences between Terrans and Martian colonists. While genetic modification is just one among a portfolio of political and economic differences between these populations, it has obvious implications and is a clear contributor to growing tensions between Terrans and Martians. For Carr, nothing matters more than zeroboxing. It’s not about the fame, the fans, or the money; it’s about the next fight. Nevertheless, he finds himself unwillingly pulled into the conflict as a Terran athlete in a Martian-dominated sport and as he begins a romantic relationship with his half-Martian PR agent.
While fight sequences are fantastic—no doubt enhanced by the author’s experience as a black belt in both karate and kung fu—what impressed me most was how easily she drops you into the world. The prose, much like the protagonist, is skillful, quick, and efficient; it has no time to slow down for exposition. Instead, you are off and humming along from the start, following Carr though his pre-fight routines, ruminating on the downsides of zero-G bathrooms, and entering a world—of the future, and of professional fighting—with just enough of everything you need to connect and keep moving.
Chelsea Cleveland is a Seattle-based marketer and copywriter. She has particular experience in the fields of books, design, travel, and technology. Her other passions include standing on tall things, feeding animals (human and otherwise), collecting art supplies, and discussing movies. She writes short stories, largely because it’s very difficult to finish long ones.