Bensin, a teenage slave and martial artist, is desperate to see his little sister freed. But only victory in the Krillonian Empire’s most prestigious tournament will allow him to secretly arrange for Ellie’s escape. Dangerous people are closing in on her, however, and Bensin is running out of time. With his one hope fading quickly away, how can Bensin save Ellie from a life of slavery and abuse?
The premise had me at “slave” and “martial artist,” not your everyday combination. And “tournament” promised some good competition and action. I wasn’t disappointed. I read this book within a day, staying up too late for “just one more chapter” until – you know how it goes – there weren’t any more chapters. I wanted to go right back to the beginning and read the whole thing again.
The book begins with 14-year-old Bensin trying to escape slavery with his five-year-old sister, Ellie—maybe not your most unique story problem, but I was intrigued by both the characters and the setting. I wanted to find out more about Bensin’s martial arts skills and the CSF and what’s a cavvarach and why is there formal slavery in what could easily be a modern American city?
I was even more intrigued when I met Steene Mavyins, a martial arts instructor at the local fitness center. Steene’s POV jumps right into several significant but very real problems — a messy divorce, low finances, and competition at work — that hooked me like a cavvarach blade.
The author kept my interest – and won my admiration – with her introduction and development of conflict both between characters (Steene and Markus, Bensin and Jayce) and within characters (Steene’s conscience about slavery, Bensin’s conscience about hiding Ellie). As the story unfolded, I stayed invested in Bensin’s cavvara shil matches, his developing friendship with Steene, his challenging relationship with Officer Shigo, and his plans to win Ellie’s freedom. The stakes kept rising, new problems kept coming up, deadlines kept tightening, and I found myself skimming (which I hate to do) because I wanted to find out what happens. Even the quieter scenes kept the story moving while providing needed respites from the adrenaline rush and angst.
I also really liked the setting. The “slave” part of the premise had me expecting a historical setting, but this book takes place in an alternate right now. A realistic fiction fan at heart, I enjoyed exploring the exoticism of the alternate world (different currency, country names, customs, races) from the security of “my world” (same asphalt parking lots, cell phones, air conditioning, pickup trucks). The author provides enough details to ground the story in a relatable setting without giving info dumps or going overboard. (I loved the cultural terms like “who the slark are you,” “grang you,” and “for the emperor’s sake.” “Beefbarf” made me laugh out loud.)
The slavery system is well thought out and realistically portrayed. I found myself equally fascinated and appalled by this world in which people wear collars like animals, are treated like inanimate property, and call other people owners. Thankfully there are slave rights and legal measures that protect slaves, especially minors — and not all owners are like Mr. Creghorn. Note: while nothing is shown or explicitly mentioned, it’s implied several times that slavery is worse for girls than for boys. Only one scene, in which a man is asking about a young girl for sale, has dialogue that is clearly suggestive and may trigger a reader with a past of sexual abuse.
I LOVED the cavvara shil, a super cool martial art that seems to combine fencing, kickboxing, and a little bit of wrestling. (I actually Googled it to see if it’s a real thing. It’s not, sadly.) All the details – moves, equipment, classes, tournament schedules – made it seem so real and super cool even to readers like me who can’t tell a roundhouse from a square house. I loved that cavvara shil plays a major role in the story, and not just in the arena. (No spoilers.)
I only have a few, small bones to pick with The Collar and the Cavvarach. While the story structure is strong and the author employs some masterful storytelling techniques, I thought the writing itself to be on the bland side — few good comparisons or metaphors, descriptions that are mostly vague or cliché, and no turns of phrase that really stood out to me. I didn’t really mind, since the writing is still solid and the story carries itself, I just like a bit more spice in my narrative.
Both Bensin and Ellie’s relationship and Ellie as a character seemed more stereotypical than unique. They have cute moments together, and their characters and their relationship are realistic, but there wasn’t anything that really gave snap to their relationship or made Ellie her own character.
Sometimes the characters provided information in dialogue that didn’t sound natural, and while in one way I didn’t mind the chapter titles, in another way I found them distracting. And I wish the book didn’t end so soon. I knew what happened, but because of the wild ride I’d just been on, I still harbored doubts that said ending could really come true, and I think I would have felt more closure if I’d actually seen the expected events for myself.
But those are small things and not worth complaining about. If you’re looking for a gripping story with sports action, good morals, relatable characters, and alternate reality, I highly recommend Annie Douglass Lima’s The Collar and the Cavvarach. Perfect for fans of sports adventures AND realistic spec fic.
P.S. This book would make a spectacular movie.