Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Jumping Jiminy, I read the most bloody, gory, graphically violent novel of my life last week. It's all @ashman01's fault. He tweeted something about how he likes Hunger Games but preferred it under the original title Battle Royale. I loved Hunger Games and the follow-up, Catching Fire, and have been waiting for the final book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, so was a little taken aback by his tweet. I'd heard of Battle Royale before and my son had seen the film, and while there were similarities my initial reaction was that saying they were the same is like saying Casablanca and Gone With the Wind are the same since they are both romances that take place during a war.

As you probably know, the Hunger Games in the title of the book series refers to a pretty nasty practice of sending young people into an arena and having them battle each other until only one survives. In the Hunger Games this is the retribution of the government in response to a long ago uprising. The country (world?) has been divided into sections and one destroyed. Each of the remaining sections must submit a girl and a boy for each game, who are not expected to return home as the odds are pretty bad. But while the games are extremely important to the series and are the backdrop for the action and much of the motivation, the main focus is on protagonist Katniss and her complex love and loyalty to her family, loved ones and small mining town.

Battle Royale on the other hand has a similar theme, that of the ethics of fighting your friends and classmates to the death, but the focus (to me anyway) is much more on the fighting and less on the emotional torment of the characters. (Which is not to say they aren't tormented, of course they are.) Also Hunger Games starts well before the games, goes through extensive preparation, the games themselves, and the aftermath while Battle Royale pretty much jumps right in with both feet.

Battle Royale begins with 42 third year junior high students going on a school trip. (I'm American, reading the story translated from the original Japanese into English and I'm sorry to say I don't know how this translates into our school system. Of course our school system varies wildly across the country with some schools not having any middle or junior highs. The students are 15, if that's any help.) At first we see the world from the perspective of Shuya, an athletic, popular boy who has a secret love of rock and roll. (Secret because rock and roll is one of the many things forbidden by his totalitarian government.) He introduces us to the other characters in the story, seat by seat, but for me anyway, I couldn't keep track of them. 42 is a lot of people to meet in a row and I'm kind of bad with names anyway so my head was in a bit of a whirl by the time everyone on the bus was suddenly gassed into unconsciousness.

The students awake in a strange classroom and are told they have been selected for the program and will be fighting until only one remains. If 24 hours go by with no deaths all of the children will be killed. This will be easily accomplished via the collars attached to each student's neck, which can be remotely exploded. The collars also track the children as well as their vital stats, making it easy to tell who is alive and who is dead. The island on which the classroom sits has been divided into zones and as the game goes on these zones will randomly become forbidden, blowing up anyone who is in them at the wrong time. The students are also informed that their teacher is dead (his corpse is desecrated in front of them) and that some of their parents are also dead, killed when they objected to the loss of their children.

The students are then sent out of the classroom, with a small pack containing bread, water and a weapon. These weapons range from extremely deadly (machine guns) to the bizarre and ineffective (a fork). Some of the students hope to meet up and form alliances but others see the exiting students as perfect targets. Those who are unsure if the game is even real are completely unprepared for those in the class who view the game as a dream come true.

There are a variety of reasons the teens fight each other. Some are badly frightened, others want to stay alive at any costs, others are trying to protect a classmate they care about and some would want to kill even if that wasn't part of the rules. There is plenty of action, much of it too lovingly described, and the suspense is pretty intense. It is difficult to keep track of so many characters but much of the story is told from Shuya's perspective, which makes it a little easier. And of course as the story progresses it's easier to keep track because there are fewer and fewer characters.

Battle Royale is well written, fast paced and a quick read, despite its more than six hundred pages. If you can take the gory descriptions and the murder of teens you'll want to pick it up. But if you get it looking for the original Hunger Games I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. They're very different pieces of art.

One-Paragraph Review

This week's one-paragraph review is from Fangbanger1873, who says, "Oh my Godric. The True Blood finale was really good until the end and then I was all wtf?" Do you have a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me for consideration. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.