The Challenger: Contender, Book 2

Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
The Challenger: Contender, Book 2 Book Poster Image
Modern teens fight as gladiators in more violent sequel.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Much about fighting in a Roman Colosseum, how gladiators entered the ring, how they sometimes flooded the arena to stage mock sea battles, what weapons and armor were used, how gladiators trained and lived in schools called ludus. Stories of real people who have disappeared or were thought dead throughout history such as Julius Caesar's son Caesarian, Sir Frances Drake, and female Japanese warrior Ohori Tsuruhime. Different dinosaurs and prehistoric sea creatures are described as they are encountered, down to when they lived and when they went extinct. Descriptions of a crannog -- a defensive Gaelic island. A lecture on the major arteries and vulnerable points in the human body.

Positive Messages

Survival isn't possible in this series without teamwork, ingenuity, resilience, bravery, trusting in your friends. Freedom and control over one's own destiny is the ultimate goal.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Cade continues to be the brave leader in this story. He makes compassionate decisions when he can, befriending and helping an orphan boy and a mini-dino with a broken wing. He's also a quick, strategic thinker. He builds stronger bonds with his friends in this book and with his trainer, an old Japanese woman who is savvier than she looks. Characters are diverse: Cade is half-Indian, his friends are Black and Asian.

Violence

Roman Colosseum-style battles where teens are forced to kill with swords, arrows, spears. Some teens are eaten by dinosaurs in the ring; some brief graphic descriptions of carnage. Main character is beaten unconscious, ending up with two black eyes, is almost fed to sea monster. He fights another giant monster with many injuries. Graphic description of weapon removed from gut and the hole stitched up. Main characters are taken hostage and sold. Enslaved people are whipped on a ship, with stories of their torturous lives (one had his eyes plucked out, others their tongues removed) and the terrible smell below decks as they sit in their own filth. Mention that a young boy had his tongue cut out.

Sex

Some kissing. A teen boy and girl modestly bathe together.

Language

"S--t" is said rarely, same with "damn," "bastard," "bloody hell," and "ass."

Consumerism

Reference to Jaws and Harry Potter.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Underage Cade drinks as little gross hard alcohol as he can with a pirate while he watches that pirate get drunk and pass out.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Challenger is the second book in a sci-fi survival series by Taran Matharu, author of the Summoner series. Teens stranded on an alien planet that fuses many time periods on Earth fight for their lives again, this time after being captured by enslavers and sent to an island that replicates the Roman empire. They're forced into coliseum-style gladiator battles where they kill other teens with swords, arrows, and spears. Some of these teens are eaten by dinosaurs in the ring, with some brief graphic descriptions of the carnage. Other violence includes beatings by pirates, a fight against a giant monster that yields many injuries, and a graphic description of a weapon removed from a gut and the hole stitched up. Other mature content includes a bit of swearing (not beyond "s--t"), some reluctant underage drinking to get a pirate talking, some kissing, and a teen boy and girl modestly bathing together. The cast in this series is diverse. Cade, the main character, is half-Indian, and his friends are Black and Asian. Cade continues to be the brave leader in this story. He makes compassionate decisions when he can, befriending and helping an orphan boy and a mini-dino with a broken wing. He's also a quick and strategic thinker and builds strong bonds with his friends.

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What's the story?

In THE CHALLENGER: CONTENDER, BOOK 2, it's been two months since Cade and friends battled monsters at the keep, and Cade can't take waiting for the next trial anymore. He coaxes the floating alien instrument called the Codex into waking up, and just like that the countdown to the next challenge begins. The Codex explains that one of them and only one -- guess who? -- is to battle a gigantic hydra, and if they don't win, the aliens behind the cruel game will destroy Earth and leave them stranded on this planet full of mashed-up Earth time periods and relics. While their situation seems hopeless, they think there's a chance of survival if they can find a suit of armor for protection. The Codex tells them there's one in the dinosaur- and slave-trader-infested jungle. They just have to risk their lives to claim it.  

Is it any good?

If the idea of scrawny teens training to become gladiators and fighting dinosaurs excites you, then this sci-fi sequel is exactly what you've been looking for. There's a bit of Maze Runner here, plus The Hunger Games, plus the Edge of Extinction series by Laura Martin -- most of this mash-up trilogy has a precedent or three -- but The Challenger and the first book, The Chosen, weave in some fascinating history. If you didn't know that they used to flood the Roman Colosseum for sea battles, now you do. (There's a great NOVA special on this, incidentally.)

The action is at the forefront of the story, especially the teens' tough training regime. But there are a few standout characters, like their savvier-than-she-looks trainer Tsuru and Cade's Roman friend Quintus. Things look pretty grim for the finale, with more challenges ahead and a cruel alien overlord that seems impossible to outsmart. But if they can manage to not get eaten by dinosaurs at the Colosseum, maybe a happy ending and a return to Earth is possible.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violence at the Colosseum in The Challenger. How do Cade and his friends feel about killing people? Does seeing it through the eyes of teens who never wanted to be gladiators make the violence more jarring, or less?

  • What did you learn about history here? What other books have you read that incorporate history into the story?

  • Will you read the finale of the Contender trilogy? What do you think will happen to Cade and friends?

Book details

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For kids who love science fiction and fantasy

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