This article contains mild spoilers.
I’ve been a fan of Jenna Moreci since her debut novel Eve: The Awakening was released in 2015. The self-published author who posts videos of writing advice on YouTube is a hilarious, lovely woman.
When an Amazon glitch prevented me from buying an eBook of Eve three years ago, I contacted Moreci and she voluntarily sent me a digital copy for free. I enjoyed that book, and in gratitude of her generosity, actually purchased a physical copy of Eve to support her career as an independent author.
Three years later, Moreci is back (not that she’s ever left) with a second novel, The Savior’s Champion, a brand new story with different characters and an original universe.
Moreci has buzzed about the book she’s been working on over the last two years via an elaborate social media marketing campaign. In the meantime, she still found time to film weekly videos to keep her YouTube channel running.
When The Savior’s Champion was finally released on April 24 this year, I made an order on Book Depository, which delivers books for free, although my copy took weeks to arrive. It eventually did, and I’ve since finished the book in just the span of 24 hours.
I couldn’t put it down… although not entirely for the right reasons.
From the moment Moreci unveiled the synopsis for The Savior’s Champion, I found it slightly reminiscent of Suzanne Collins’s acclaimed 2008 novel, The Hunger Games. It wasn’t surprising that three or four chapters into her actual book, I was very distracted by how similar Moreci’s novel is to Collins’.
The Savior’s Champion follows Tobias Kaya, a young labourer from an impoverished family comprising only a widowed mother and a younger sister. He volunteers to join a deadly nationwide pageant that runs for days and includes competitors fighting to the death. His participation is motivated by his disadvantaged sister, since the organizers reward his family with riches. …Sounds familiar?
The rest of the book unravels even more similarities to The Hunger Games. This pageant, known as the Savior’s Tournament, includes intricately designed arenas with physical challenges and booby traps. It involves as many as 20 competitors (the Hunger Games had 24), categorized into subgroups based on a unifying trait or skill.
At one point, the protagonist becomes a fan favorite. At another, one competitor brutally smashes another’s head to death, incensed by the victim’s words. In one instance, the competitors are granted an individual opportunity to impress key personnel (in which the protagonist is last to have his turn). During the Tournament, alliances form. And obstacles include dangerous waters, fog, venomous bugs and mutant animals.
I haven’t encountered a book with such a familiar premise since Christopher Paolini’s Eragon was accused of taking too many leaves out of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.
“I didn’t think the odds were in my favor,” Tobias actually says in the second chapter, perhaps Moreci’s subtle jab at The Hunger Games‘ popular catchphrase, “may the odds be ever in your favor.” Later in the book, the protagonist sums up the book’s Hunger Games logline during a tirade: “we’re not men, we’re animals trained for entertainment. We kill one another, and they cheer. It’s savagery!”
Reading the book got me really perplexed. Moreci has frequently shared on YouTube how she adopts a beta reader program to assist her writing process. Volunteer readers are regularly given drafts of her chapters to read and provide feedback. Either none of her beta readers dared to tell her how oddly close her story was to The Hunger Games (a mammoth in pop culture that even spawned four blockbuster films by the time Moreci started work on her book), or Moreci simply decided to ignore them, believing her story was still unique enough not to draw comparisons.
I’m well aware of The Hunger Games‘ own comparisons to the Japanese film Battle Royale, and I’m not saying that any fight to the death concept is tantamount plagiarism, but many micro-details in The Savior’s Champion still mirror Collins’ novel.
I actually read most of the book to a Spotify playlist of Hunger Games film scores, but let’s put the Games aside and evaluate The Savior’s Champion on its merits (or lack of).
Like Moreci’s previous novel, the new book itself was easy to read. Her writing is not difficult to absorb; vocabulary and sentence structures are simple and modern.
The Savior’s Champion takes place in the fictitious realm of Thessen, heavily influenced by ancient Greece and Rome. It appears to occur in medieval times (there is no use of technology), although the characters talk in a weird blend of casual, modern-day speak and formal, sometimes cheesy antiquated speech (“Go now, and spend your time contemplating the deep disappointment you’ve bestowed upon the Savior.”)
“Tell me, are you still repulsed by my presence?” Tobias says casually, an odd choice of vocabulary given most people just go with “disgusted.” This dissonant vernacular resurfaces in many characters, particularly the Sovereign, a supreme official who uses “a little bitch” during a court hearing and “a deplorable cunt” in front of monarchs.
As demonstrated in Eve, Moreci is a writer who embraces vulgarities, although she went too overboard this time around. “Cock” and “cunt” are among the book’s most common words (you can’t go ten pages without encountering either), and “shit” and “bitch” are tossed around every now and then. The profanities are distracting and borderline on overwhelming; it’s hard to actually recommend this book to more sensitive friends.
As for the content itself, The Savior’s Champion is troubled storytelling that begins strong but loses stamina.
The book starts powerfully with a biting prologue and well-refined chapters that lead seamlessly from one to another. The story doesn’t waste time and quickly commences with the Tournament, a lengthy series of deadly challenges that lose steam and gravity past the book’s midway point.
From keeping calm during torture to rose-picking and archery contests, the challenges become increasingly random with no real significance, desensitizing me to the stakes and mortality of the competitors. Only one was brilliant: an innocent potion lesson that becomes a Saw-like race for an antidote.
These challenges usually conclude with characters bloodied. Moreci enjoys writing graphic sequences (Eve was swarmed with viciously teethed aliens), but the gore in The Savior’s Champion borders on gratuitous. Unlike The Hunger Games‘ blood spill, which symbolized their corrupt government’s inhumane sadism, Moreci’s Tournament is not propaganda of any sort. Its gruesome showing is gratifying for the author, but unnecessary.
The Tournament itself is a true men’s pageant that elects a winner to marry the Savior, the divine female ruler of Thessen with supernatural abilities. Because of this, it is half a dating competition à la The Bachelorette: challenge winners are rewarded with alone time spent with the Savior herself.
This is one of the book’s poor plot elements, because the Savior does not determine the Tournament’s victor. In gladiator style, the last man standing is deemed champion, so currying favor with the eligible bachelorette is inconsequential, yet it is a reward.
The book also holds other problematic plot points. While most of the Tournament is a progressive fight to the death, killing competitors in between challenges is not illegal and breaks no rules. Later in the Tournament, one contestant can be selected for “honorary release”, and another can be released by being deemed too “unworthy”. These strange variables ruin the integrity of the competition.
Some scenes are outlandish and unrealistic. During the Reverence, a public ceremony that presents surviving competitors to the public, female fans in the crowd expose their breasts in support of their favorites. This is absurd for a national pageant meant to elect a husband for the ruler they worship.
In fact, throughout the book, Thessen culture constantly leaves little for modesty. Characters fervently touch one another’s breasts and penises without permission, and are very candid with their objectifying ideas. Only two characters really bother with protecting their own modesty: Tobias and the lady he meets during the Tournament, a Healer named Leila.
Their encounters blossom into a romantic affair organically. Albeit few clichéd scenes, it is endearing and believable. But upon falling for Leila midway through the book, Tobias throws the competition for the Savior’s hand in marriage. He deliberately falters or hopes he doesn’t emerge victorious for the remaining challenges. This lost motivation and purpose (as told from the protagonist’s perspective) devastates the book’s once nerve-wracking suspense; there is no point in rooting for his success when Tobias himself doesn’t want to win.
From then, the book spirals into a star-crossed romance novel with increasingly elaborate lovey movements between the couple, including sex scenes that become very explicit (e.g. Leila rubbing Tobias’s penis.)
But Leila is one of the book’s only few compelling characters. She is witty, spunky and actually funny, although the love story turns her into another typical leading lady. Conversely, Tobias himself is a protagonist I found difficult to like and sympathize from the start.
He is not particularly bright or capable, lacking the adept skills of The Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen, who can protect her friends and solve many problems herself. His behavior is also annoying: he volunteers to join the Tournament, but quickly wants out after falling for a girl, then complains when she doesn’t keep him in the loop about his chances of quitting.
Meanwhile, the book boasts a large cast thanks to the Tournament’s participants, most of whom are forgettable or ordinary. I only really feel for Orion, a mature and honorable ally to Tobias, and Kaleo, an unscrupulous and cunning competitor who started off intriguing but gradually receded to the background.
It took me a while to differentiate the many competitors, each of whom have their name plus an alias (a “laurel”). Thankfully, Moreci commissioned character portraits for most of them, greatly aiding my memory and visualization.
But the one visualization I had no problems with throughout The Savior’s Champion? That of the penis.
There are tons of penis references throughout the book, more so than a gay erotic novel. And for a story consisting of mostly straight male characters, the use of the word “cock” couldn’t be more unusually frequent. Characters either use “cock” as an insult or to actually refer to one: “I hope his cock is small,” “cocks the size of worms” and “wet spot for your cock.” It is bizarre how straight characters are thinking that much about penis, unless this is merely the author embracing the male appendage as a literary motif.
The book is also loaded with homoerotic imagery that is sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant, whether or not Moreci had intended for it that way.
As early as the second chapter, Tobias strips naked and has his penis measured, then masturbates for a fertility test in a brief one-liner. His chest and body are regularly oiled throughout the book, and the male competitors spend much of the competition shirtless or bare-chested. (The book cover already depicts a half-naked man.)
Erections are frequently described (“hard bulge poking straight up”), and bathing scenes are aplenty. In one, Tobias is almost fingered by an assistant (“you nearly shoved your hand up my ass.”)
Somehow, underwear doesn’t exist in the book. Pants are abruptly pulled to reveal the naked within (even during challenges.) Sometimes during brawls, Tobias attacks his opponent’s balls or punches their penises, because their groins wind up in his face. And in a middle of a brutal fight, spectators somehow manage to grab Tobias’s ass.
In one scene, Tobias shares that due to shared accommodation, his male roommate masturbates openly in the morning. But nothing is more kinky or fetishistic than Tobias’s recount of a prank on his sister’s cheating ex (he unknowingly showers in Tobias’s urine), or when the competitors once wake up to a masked man while strapped by leather to a chair.
Male characters often make homoerotic jabs: “you’ll just have to stare at my ass,” or “you’re tighter than a virgin asshole.” At one point, one character suggests raping Tobias while squeezing his ass: “do we have time for a little fun? I’ve always enjoyed this face of his.”
I’m not upset by the prevalent homoeroticism; I’m just surprised it’s there, although I suppose much of it was fuelled by Moreci’s female gaze. That said, The Savior’s Champion is not without the male gaze either: characters have an unhealthy, equally objectifying obsession with breasts (“the men’s gazes danced over Her hair, Her breasts, Her lips, Her breasts, Her eyes, Her breasts.”)
It’s not surprising that the book actually includes gay characters. Two male competitors actually develop a romance, although one speaks in broken English, almost like a stereotypical fashion designer from Europe. Even their character portraits aren’t the most butch-looking, and their storylines are minute, so I can’t decide if this representation is tactful or token.
Overall, I found The Savior’s Champion an addictive yet frustrating read. I don’t recall having this many issues with Moreci’s first book, so it agonizes me that her follow-up novel isn’t a resounding improvement. The world-building is richer, and less stock characters appear than in Eve: The Awakening, but the book possesses too many loopholes and unexpectedly lewd references.
Alas, the book culminates in one major plot twist that I actually saw coming, truly ruining The Savior’s Champion’s final shot at impressing me (I’m usually bad at guessing plot twists, but I also watched Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.)
I’d give this book a 2.5, but there’s just something love-hate about this truly unconventional, mostly bizarre story, so I’ll top up the score. That aside, it’s not first on my list of recommendations to friends; I’d very much prefer to spare them the onslaught of “cock”.