Book Review – ‘Contender’ by Taran Matharu

Title: Contender
Author: Taran Matharu
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Word/Page Count: 345 pages (paperback)
Publication Details: by Hachette Australia on June 11th, 2019
RRP: $19.99 AUD (paperback)

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Blurb from Goodreads:

Introducing an epic new trilogy from Taran Matharu, author of the New York Times–bestselling Summoner series. 

Throughout history, people have vanished with no explanation. A group of teenagers are about to discover why.

Cade is settling into a new boarding school, contemplating his future, when he finds himself transported to another realm. He soon discovers their new world is populated with lost remnants from the past: prehistoric creatures, ancient relics, and stranger still — people. Overwhelmed by his new surroundings, Cade has little time to adjust, for soon he and his fellow classmates are forced to become contenders in a brutal game, controlled by mysterious overlords.

But who are these beings and why did they choose these teens? Cade must prepare for battle . . . because hiding is not an option.

The saying goes not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case, what you see is what you get! The immediate impression upon seeing a depiction of the protagonist wielding a sword against dinosaurs is that this is an action-packed heart-pounding roller-coaster ride of a read and that is certainly the case right from page 1.

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We start off with our hero Cade facing near-certain death at the jaws of a piranha-chimp creature in a place, date and year unknown before flashing back to six months earlier where we learn that Cade was sent to a boarding school for troubled youths after being wrongly sentenced for committing theft. These flashbacks provide insight into Cade and start to flesh out key characters from the school who also feature in the brutal arena fighting for their lives, but strangely enough these are discontinued a quarter of the way into the story.  The alternation between past and present ending so unceremoniously was puzzling, especially as the main players in this ‘Hunger Maze Runner Games‘ mash-up could have still done with further development.

On the other hand, it meant that the action sequences could continue unabated, which was fun as the intensity and desperation of the characters ramped up more and more, but I missed being able to get to know the other characters better. The high stakes felt more like medium stakes as Cade was the only person I was invested in, since the rest of his classmates were fairly interchangeable, aside from the loathsome Finch, who stands out for all the wrong reasons. Cade also encounters a time-displaced Roman legionnaire and a group of British female hockey players around the half-way mark, but being embroiled in a constant battle to stay alive in a place where everyone and everything is trying to kill them means that there is even less chance to learn much about these new characters other than their names.

But if you’re looking for a fun survival thriller, then that doesn’t matter! And on that front, Contender really delivers. This felt like a blockbuster movie with the stunning visuals of an endless desert wastelands and valley of bones, lush jungles and abandoned medieval keeps, and that’s before you even get to the strange and deadly creatures that stalk the main characters.

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Cade is a great protagonist who you’ll root for every step of the way, he’s relatable as we see his fear and uncertainty, then shows his resourceful nature by using his wits to find a clever way to outmaneuver the danger he’s facing. Male heroes in YA tend to blur together after a while, but Cade is a refreshing change as he actually thinks before he acts and favors brain over brawn. There is no rushing in where angels fear to tread from him! His sense of loyalty and dedication to his fellow contenders is why I was supporting Team Human, which isn’t always a guarantee (sometimes you just want to see the dinosaurs eat people, y’know?), but his truly heroic efforts to keep everyone safe and survive the battle increased the dread and tension in the last quarter.

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In terms of diversity, Cade is biracial with an Indian mother and white father – not that the latter excuses him from taunts and harassment for having brown skin. Aside from the bullying which is sadly realistic, I liked the random shout-outs to his ethnicity, such as when he wistfully recalled his mother’s jalebi. (something I couldn’t get enough of as a kid!) There are other characters from diverse backgrounds like Spex who is Brazilian and Amber who is part-Asian, but neither are developed enough for any details of their heritage to come up. On the plus side, the Roman legionnaire Quintus is deaf and plays an important part in their survival which is great for deaf representation.

The writing is fast-paced and easily draws you into the story, refusing to let go as one bizarre anomaly after another confronts our protagonist. Various historical details about Romans and speculation from the paleontology field about how dinosaurs would’ve looked is incorporated in a brisk and interesting manner, making the story seem more grounded even if it is about teenagers fighting monsters in a death arena. The puzzle of what’s going on and why these kids were chosen provides a tantalizing amount of intrigue to keep the reader guessing and we are finally treated to a few revelations at the end, so you can rest easy there is some sense of resolution even as things are set up for book 2!


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In Short

Pros: compelling lead, immersive world, engaging writing, tons of action and suspense

Cons: underdeveloped supporting characters, occasional info-dump, Finch (is the worst)

Personal Rating: 3.5 out of 5 kitties recommend this book.

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Praise from other bloggers:

RhythmicBooktrovert  |  Luchia Houghton | Bri’s Book Nook | Nay’s Pink Bookshelf |

Disclaimer: Physical copy provided by publisher free for an unbiased review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

5 thoughts on “Book Review – ‘Contender’ by Taran Matharu

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