Tag Team Review: Shadow Fray (Shadow Fray #1) by Bradley Lloyd

Family is worth fighting for—and family doesn’t always mean blood.

No one knows what calamity poisoned the earth and decimated the human population, but living close to the toxic ground means illness and death. Justin is determined to keep his twin sister and younger brother from that fate—no matter what he has to do. To earn enough to keep his family safe in a high-rise, Justin enlists in a deadly sport called Shadow Fray. He quickly finds himself in over his head, especially when he is scheduled to face the most dangerous player.

Hale—who competes as Black Jim—knows he won’t be on top forever, despite his skills. He fights for a better life for his daughter, but his time is running out as Shadow Fray becomes increasingly lethal. Something about the newest fighter intrigues him, but does he dare defy his masters to investigate? Justin and Hale will clash in the ring, while beyond it the powerful elite and the crumbling world seem determined to keep them apart. If they can find common ground, they might have a chance to fight for their futures.

3.625 to be exact

JL - 3.75 Hearts

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this.  Was it going to be a dark, depressing read riddled with angst?  Or would it be a high-octane thrill ride, keeping me at the edge of my seat with nail-biting intensity?  Surprisingly, it was neither.  Instead, I got an emotional tale of survival and perseverance, of love and family, of loneliness and discovery, of romance and love.

Set in a future where the planet has been ravaged by a series of catastrophic events and the population has been reduced to a seventh of what it is today by a superflu (what they call the Thinning), the story starts out a bit gritty.  The denizens of the world now have to live up off the ground to avoid the sickness that still lingers even a hundred years after the Thinning.  Men now outnumber women and the fertility rate is almost nil.  Though they still have technology, like cell phones and the internet, there is no development of it.  The Arts and creativity seem to be lost as people tend to prefer movies, television shows and music from the “Old World”, clinging to the past and not looking to the future.  It seemed pretty bleak.  The only ‘new’ thing in the world is the Shadow Fray, illegal fights between anonymous brawlers that are held in secret locations and recorded for internet viewing. 

Though I had a hard time getting into the story initially, I ended up enjoying this debut by Mr. Lloyd.  Even with the post-apocalyptic setting and all the danger and intrigue, the story was more character driven than anything.  I got a real sense of who the characters truly were and I liked what I saw of them.  They stayed true to their characters too.  Justin, only twenty-three, was forced to grow up too fast when his mother died and he had to become the provider and caregiver to his twin sister and baby brother.  Though he is responsible and can be depended on, he still acts like a twenty-three-year-old, wearing his heart on his sleeve and lashing out when his emotions get the best of him.  Hale, being thirteen years older, was a bit more jaded and cocksure, what you would expect from a man who’s been around the block more than a few times.  Hale may seem stoic and sometimes come off as selfish and a bit of an asshole, but beneath it all hides vulnerability, loneliness and metric fuck-ton of guilt. Their personalities complemented each other, though, and they fit well together as a couple.  My favorite thing about them besides their fights, which, let’s be honest here, was more foreplay than anything, was they actually talked to each other.  Oh, Justin tried to be a martyr and push Hale away to ‘save’ him but Hale wasn’t having any of that nonsense.  There was no Big Misunderstanding.  They talked their shit out instead and I loved it.  Communication is so sexy!

I do wish the world building was a bit more detailed though. I never could get a true sense of exactly how this world works and I questioned quite a few things, like, why hasn’t anyone figured out what happened to the ground to make it so toxic? Why haven’t they tried to fix it? Why does everyone seem so apathetic about cleaning up the environment so they no longer have to fear the ground-sickness? Why does everyone cling to the past instead of looking to the future? Hopefully, my questions will be answered in future installments of the series, of which I have no doubt there will be as the story ended on a bit of a cliffhanger.

In spite of the aforementioned issues, I have been drawn into this world and I am eager to read more of Justin and Hale’s story. This first book shows that the series has the potential to become an epic saga and I, for one, can’t wait to see how it all turns out.

Optimist ♰King's Wench♰ - 3.5 Hearts

This post-apocalyptic world Lloyd has created is rife with possibilities. I interpreted it as a cautionary tale involving multiple current sociopolitical happenings and where they could lead if left unchecked. Earth’s soil has been poisoned so much so that most live in high rises (risers). Those that cannot afford to live in the risers will likely succumb to the sickness from being a "groundling", so there’s a very distinct socioeconomic strata at play which aligns with the risers. Modern day big businesses e.g. Exxon and Dupont seemingly run this futuristic America, though I do think there is a mafia element at work as well. Chicago is the center of this redefined America where privacy is at a premium; drones monitor everyone and everything. Women are in short supply, so much so that they’ve been given carte blanche in protecting themselves without legal ramifications. It’s the blatant and aggressive homophobia that I had the most trouble with especially when paired with the almost elevated status of trans and something called "unis". I’m still not sure what unis are exactly aside from being infertile, so I’m guessing that means they have a uterus. I'm also guessing this will factor more heavily into this series as it progresses. There are a lot of things I liked about this world, but the homophobia didn’t logically make sense when put into the context of a world with fewer women. I’m probably overthinking it but I kept getting hung up on that. I suppose, it does make the relationship between Justin and Hale all the more exciting owing to its inherent tabooness, so there is that.

Both are underground fighters in something called the Shadow Fray. Hale is at the top of his game and a legend. Justin is younger and new to the Fray. His idol has always been Hale, so there's a bit of hero worship going on, but Hale seems just as taken by Justin's raw talent. I'm still questioning how this whole thing can or has sustained itself. Everyone knows about it since the fights are posted on the interwebs and big money is involved, so I'm wondering why the secrecy? Unless... it's just more exciting that way? Which admittedly does have a certain appeal.

If you're averse to fighting and violence you’ll probably want to skip this one. The fight sequences are detailed and graphic. Actually, Lloyd’s writing style in general is very detailed. At times I thought the details slowed the pacing, becoming repetitive or redundant, but others times I found them fresh and entertaining. The tricky thing about a first novel in a series is trying to decipher what could be relevant as the series progresses and there’s still quite a bit that’s unresolved. I have a thousand possibilities running around in my head about these characters, the trajectory of this story, how the Shadow Fray will evolve and how Hale and Justin will fare, so I will be reading the next one to see if I'm even in the neighborhood.

I’m not really in love with either of these characters yet, but I do have a good sense of who Justin is and what’s important to him. Hale less so despite being given both of their perspectives. Though its clear both are lonely and feel increasingly isolated in this society where people largely stay in the shadows, eschewing human interaction. The secondary characters, especially Charlie, are all varying degrees of captivating and well drawn except the elusive Shadow Masters. Who are they? Gah! So many questions.

What I was pleasantly surprised by was the amount of romance, tension building and chemistry between Hale and Justin. There’s a slight age difference (13 yrs) with Hale being the more experienced of the two, slightly more aggressive and surprisingly romantic. He’s almost schmoopy which was so dichotomous and unexpected that I found it kind of adorable. They are well matched and have laid a good foundation for a long-lasting relationship, though I foresee some hiccups along the way since Justin is less comfortable with his newfound same-sex attraction and, y'know, they can get in BIG TIME trouble for being together. Can't be all smooth sailing. What fun is that?

Besides I they need some makeup sex because the chemistry between them is enough to power all of Chicago and when it reached critical mass…

Word. I need some more of that, please. There is something really hot about the whole fighters fighting then fucking thing, isn't there? PRAISE BE!!!!!!!

I waffled between 3-4 Hearts for three days so I’m calling it 3.5 for now. Once the series is complete I reserve the right to revise my rating.

Recommended for of post-apocalyptic/dystopian and fighter fans.

ARCs were provided.

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