The American Battle Royale: “Kung Fu High School”

If You Like…

  • Battle Royale
  • The Hunger Games
  • Harry Potter house-sorting
  • “Gangs of New York”

Then You’ll Like…

Kung Fu High School by Ryan Gattis

rageAre you a Jackie Chan fan? Bruce Lee? Jet Li? Tony Jaa? Countless other kung fu action movie stars? You’re not alone. I too indulged in many a Jackie Chan flicks as a kid and teen, and I’ve grown to respect these men even more knowing they did all their own stunt-work, even the more dangerous stuff. But how would you translate their fighting style into a book? How would you describe the tension, the moves?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Kung Fu High School by Ryan Gattis.

Before “Games” Were Cool

When I say “Games” I’m mostly talking about dystopian competition stories, i.e. The Hunger Games or “Game of Thrones.” See, before these types of things became cool in my life, I found Kung Fu High School, a story about school that is so overrun with gang violence, it’s a shock that the place hasn’t been torn down. It’s a tale of kids killing each other, and being sorted into families that kill for each other to come out on top. Sound familiar, yet?

Illustration by Brandon Gattis. The book is full of Brandon's illustrations, showing weapons, armor, and more.
Illustration by Brandon Gattis. The book is full of Brandon’s illustrations, showing weapons, armor, and more.

This book is the story of Jen, a student at Good Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King High School, which has been dubbed by the young people of the town as “Kung Fu High School.” Why is that, you ask? Told from her voice, Jen explains that the students of this school are from impoverished parts of town, and what sets this school apart is its ridiculous social structure, if you can call it that. Once you’re “beat in” as a freshman, you’re sorted into one of the six “families” in the student body. They’re essentially gangs – Waves, Wolves, Runners, Whips, Fists, and Blades – protecting their own through various kinds of martial arts and street fighting. Preparing to go to school every morning is like going to war; not only do you pack protective gear and first aid, but you hide homemade weapons on your person too. Just in case.

Because of this segregation and dangerous environment, dojos sprang up around their town like “kung fu kapitalism” when kids started to wise up to the fact that they needed to know how to defend themselves: “Karate, Sumo, Judo, Aikido, Jujitsu…Hapkido, Tae Kwon Do…Muay Thai…Filipino Escrima, Vanilla Kickboxing, Krav Maga…” and the list goes on. In their school hierarchy, the top of the food chain is Ridley, a drug kingpin and the sole reason that school remains open (his younger brother Fred has “mental retardation,” so Ridley uses a lot of his resources to build the best Special Education program in the state. Kind of ironic.)

So that’s the set-up. The main plot of the story is that Jen’s cousin, Jimmy Chang, has been sent to live with her family, after a public incident where he beat up some thugs in the street. The catch is that Jimmy Chang is an undefeated kung fu champion from Hong Kong, and has promised his mother not to fight anymore. But as soon as he steps into Kung Fu High School he’s got a target on his back, and Ridley feels threatened. While trying to navigate the school year without being killed, Jimmy and Jen are also fighting against an internal battle, as some families fall and are swallowed up those loyal to Ridley.

What I enjoyed the most out of this gnarly story was Jen’s voice and how she was written. In fact, at first you don’t even know that she’s a girl until a few chapters in. The point of view is very conversational speak, gritty and full of slang, and I love it. You are a stranger in a strange town, and Jen is your guide, walking you through how to survive and what it takes. While it’s considered a writing faux pas to tell and not show, Jen does just that for many of the chapters and it works. After all, as readers we are dumped into this violent world without warning, and need a helping hand like hers to get around.

In terms of tone, it’s very Tarantino-esque: a reality that follows a different set of rules and is very violent, but throws in the odd chuckle every now and again to ground the audience. The characters are memorable and the survival instincts are palpable. It’s not your typical Hollywood action fight scenes either, where the heroes barely get a scratch or outwit their opponents at the last second. Think of the fights as Chris Pine’s Capt. James Kirk from the “Star Trek” reboot; remember how he was always getting his ass kicked in the beginning? He was a bloody mess, and that’s pretty much how all the characters are in this book. All the time. When the hell do they have time for actual  schoolwork, let alone graduating?

Not Your Average YA Novel

While Kung Fu High School may have passed under the radar for a lot of YA readers, I’ve found that this book has a bit of a cult following on the internet. No surprise, and I gladly join them. This book is gritty, bloody, and almost beautiful in how Jen describes the fight scenes she’s involved in. It’s true drama at it’s finest, straight from the streets and the hormones of high school, covered in bloody fists. While cartoonish at times in its depiction, I dare to say that it’s one of the more honest depictions of gang violence that I’ve ever read. Also, to pull a page from George RR Martin, some characters die that you didn’t expect to. Word of warning. It’s definitely a far cry from typical YA books, with dashing, talented heroines overcoming corruption, governments, and cliques. It really is the underrated American Battle Royale, and deserves a spot on your bookshelf.

There was one flaw, and I hate that it has to do with what makes this a YA novel to begin with. Not just that they’re teenagers, but that a romance is shoehorned in between the fight scenes and “family” intrigue. To make it worse, it falls under the purview of incest. Yes, Jen and Jimmy have feelings for each other, but they’re cousins. They’re aware of the fact that they are cousins, and fight their feelings, but ultimately they become intimate. While not explicitly described, it’s heavily implied. As I was reading, I had to tell myself to ignore the fact that it’s pretty much incest and keep turning the page. It’s nothing too on-screen, but it bothered me nonetheless.

However, this in no way detracts from how freaking awesome this book is. If you’re angry, sad, stressed or need to vent in some way and want to read something that won’t hit you back, pick up a copy of Kung Fu High School. Paperback copies are going for one cent on Amazon, so it’s a great investment.

Will Make You Feel Like: Picking a fight with a punching bag. Or a pillow.

Music to Listen to While Reading: Heavy metal

Publisher: Harcourt Books

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