Score: 96/100 (9.6 out of 10)
Surviving the Second Tier by M.K. Lever features some of the best characters and best action of any novel this season! It also features a very clever critique of our competitive and aggression-rewarding society akin to something like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and you've gotta know that's a huge compliment.
Where do we start with this great book? For one, it has one of the most exciting first-halves of any fiction book we read this year, arguably the best first-half to a novel since Stumbling Through Adulthood by John Sheirer. Similar to Sheirer's work, the book sadly does not keep up that level of interest and intrigue into the second half, but it's great while it lasts. This book drags into what feels like a Return of the King extended epilogue and is probably about 50-80 pages longer than it needs to be.
With that said, you can't expect something to always be good, that would be demanding perfection, and nothing's perfect.
Something else that really shines about the book is that all of the characters are distinct and memorable. This starts with a rather exceptional lead protagonist in Sicily “Sis” Jones, a female fighter who uses her speed, elusiveness, intellect, and otherworldly work ethic to lead an undefeated fighting season. That's right, this book features a fighting season. She is essentially Ronda Rousey, a female fighter so skilled that she can roll with and defeat the boys. She is often called “Dream Girl” both because some of the characters are attracted to her and also because of her ambition. She is a dreamer, a goal-setter, and a go-getter. It's almost to a fault as she doesn't sleep well. This causes her shoulder injury not to heal at a normal rate.
Sis isn't a perfect Mary Sue. She's vulnerable, especially emotionally, and you really feel like—despite her might—she is up against something far bigger than her opponents: THE SYSTEM. The system, embodied by the AFA (Amateur Fighting Association), is the true main villain/antagonist of this tale, and it almost rivals the Capital from Hunger Games in its despicableness. The AFA is exploitative and manipulative, bent on making money and raising its ratings at the expense of the health and well-being of the athletes that it supposedly “serves.” The AFA corrupts and harms just about every other character in the book from Sicily to her coach, Sterling, and her best friend, Phin (better known as “Striker”).
Let's get into some of those other characters because some of them are gold. Striker is, as his name suggests, one of the hardest-hitters of Sis's collegiate fight team. He's actually one of the more heartwarming characters, almost always sweet and thoughtful. He is Sis's loyal and long-time friend.
There's also Cal, a knockout artist. He lacks the tact that Sis has both in and out of the ring. He is Sis's one-time boyfriend with whom she shares an uneasy relationship with as they're still teammates despite what seems like a tough breakup. Cal is basically the class clown and a pain in the butt for better or for worse. He is one of the better looking male characters according to the others. He comes armed with sharp, cutting sarcasm. Despite all this, we don't hate him. If anything, these flaws add a grayness and layers to his character. There's also Coach Sterling, a morally ambiguous character who is corrupted by the AFA into becoming a worst person than he probably would have otherwise been. Like with other characters in this book, there are times you cheer for or at least understand him and times you just outright despise him.
There's also a great antagonist in the book by the name of Chance King, an arrogant, show-boating fighter with a comparable undefeated streak to Sis. His fight with Sis, while a bit over-the-top and possibly unrealistic given the weight and size difference, is one of the highlights of the book (if not THE highlight of the book). And he doesn't just disappear either, he remains a relevant character pretty deep into the story.
There are so many times when beloved or likable characters absolutely disappoint you (the reader) with their actions and decisions. That's deliberate. It evokes very strong emotions.
Something else we appreciated about this book is that the characters don't sound like pouty, immature little kids or teenagers despite their ages. They actually sound like adults who were robbed of their childhoods. It's actually quite tragic. Their dialogue is handled so well to put that across.
This oppressive and corrupt aspect of the society is FELT. You constantly hear characters make statements like “it's not like I have a choice” or “I don't have a choice anyway.” They are indoctrinated with the idea that they either compete and win or they lose and die and that there's no life outside of the sport. Obviously, that's not true, but it's “true” in the minds of the athletes.
Something else we really appreciated about this book was the subtlety and simultaneous force of the message. This book is a criticism of athletics and competition, demonstrating how a society can get so caught up in winning and achieving wealth and fame that it forgets that humans are beings who are mortal and need things like love, rest, and care. It specifically demonstrates how exploitative athletic programs, especially at the college level, can be. Think about it: college athletes for a long time were akin to slaves/scholarship-slaves. Paying them was illegal. They couldn't even sell their own merchandise leveraging their popularity. Look at what happened to Reggie Bush who had his Heisman trophy taken away because he received payments. Meanwhile, the colleges and universities, not to mention the NCAA, made (and continues to make) millions upon millions upon millions of dollars on these unpaid athletes: ticket sales, jerseys, bowl bids/wins, donations from boosters, etc. These athletes dream of going pro and being great, but the truth is that something like 3% of them will ever actually make it, and the average pro career is something like 3.5 years. What do you do with the rest of your life? Furthermore, they have issues like permanent or nagging injuries, concussions, and CTE. Some of these problems affect you for years or decades—some for the rest of your life.
Another critique that the book makes is how commercialized sports are. It's about making money off the backs of people putting in the work to “make it.” Many of the decisions of the AFA are not with the interest of the athletes in mind, it's about ratings. For example, they manipulate their algorithm to pit Sis against Striker in true Katniss-Peeta fashion because they know it will be a big-money fight. The AFA even controls what they say to the media through canned lines on the teleprompter and fines. They'll even deliberately sabotage you, your season, or your career if they think it'll further their money-making agenda. Think about how the College Football Playoffs or, before then, the Bowl Computer Series works/worked. If you were from a weaker conference that no one cared about like the WAC, Conference USA, or the Mountain West, you had virtually no chance of making it. If you were a two-loss team from a big-money power conference like the SEC or Big 10, then you had a very good chance of still making the top-10 or even top-5.
There's a micro-criticism of how non-DI athletes are treated (DII, DIII, JUCO, etc.). The Division-I colleges have much better facilities, more scholarships and grant money to hand out, and 99.99% of the media attention. Do non-DI athletes even matter in the minds of the public or are they just second-class citizens?
There's a critique of how much society loves violence. It loves violence so much that its willing to throw these young men and women in the primes of their lives against each other. College athletics in this universe are conflated into a single fight sport comparable to MMA. Now, that might seem kinda silly, but it serves the message of the story. There are some minor issues such as the aforementioned extended length of the novel (which probably could've ended at six different points) and some small things in here that are a bit on the fantastical side such as fighters competing far outside their weight class and not being able to tap out because only pocket-bound-surrender-flags are accepted by referees--a plot-device that is eventually used.
However, all in all, this is a terrific novel!
Check it out on Amazon!