Title: The Foxhole Court
Author: Nora Sakavic
First sentence: “Neil Josten let his cigarette burn to the filter without taking a drag.”
Mark for trigger warnings: [blood, lots of violence, minor character death, death of parents, generally lots of talk about traumatizing childhoods, kind of a weird unrealistic and slightly demonizing description of mental illness and medication but I’m no expert in that field, abusive relationships all around, slight homophobia]
Neil Josten is the newest addition to the Palmetto State University Exy team. He’s short, he’s fast, he’s got a ton of potential—and he’s the runaway son of the murderous crime lord known as The Butcher.
Signing a contract with the PSU Foxes is the last thing a guy like Neil should do. The team is high profile and he doesn’t need sports crews broadcasting pictures of his face around the nation. His lies will hold up only so long under this kind of scrutiny and the truth will get him killed.
But Neil’s not the only one with secrets on the team. One of Neil’s new teammates is a friend from his old life, and Neil can’t walk away from him a second time. Neil has survived the last eight years by running. Maybe he’s finally found someone and something worth fighting for.
I’m going to try and paint a picture for you: I’m writing this post on the train on my way back from a visit to my family. These train rides are already annoying, but this time we’re also 2 hours late already. Right now we’re just standing around with a broken AC, waiting for what’ll happen next because there’s problems with the railway line. The result is that I’ll get home about 3 hours late. Hooray.
The bright side: I brought my laptop and can write this post right after finishing the book! Well, I can start because I’m not sure when we’ll be ‘evacuated’ into busses. Everything feels kind of apocalyptic right now.
Which I wrote right as there was an announcement that the busses were arriving. I’m sitting inside one now, trying to enjoy the sun and view out of the window. There’s a British dude sitting behind me and it’s making me kind of paranoid, but I’ll just pretend he’s polite enough not to read this.
But let’s start the review.
What I Loved
I started reading The Foxhole Court after I saw some people talk about it over on twitter. It drew me in right from the beginning and didn’t let me go. This could have something to do with how I’m procrastinating finishing The Raven Cycle because I know it’ll make me cry, but let’s ignore that.
Something I’ve noticed in this book from the very beginning is that to me, it conveys a strong feeling of reading fanfiction. What’s amazing is that it has several tropes I’m a sucker for. For example, Neil is really paranoid about everything and as soon as he enters a building checks the fastest way to get out. It might be overdramatic, but I enjoyed it a lot as way to show his paranoia.
Something else I was excited about is that one of the main characters is openly gay with a fiancé living abroad. Don’t get too excited though, there’s a ‘BUT’ coming later. Neil himself shows signs of queerness, but I won’t allow myself to get too excited because I’m not optimistic enough to think the author went down that road in the following books.
The sport that this novel is about is a fictional sport named Exy. I haven’t really gotten behind the rules yet, but I’m also not very interested in team sports. What’s amazing is that it’s a co-ed sport where gender doesn’t matter, at least not legally. In reality (or, well, in the fictional reality) most teams are made up by cis guys only. This is as frustrating as it is realistic, if you ask me.
Generally, this book provides an enjoyable plot centred entirely on characters and character developments. Most of the action happens via dialogue between the team mates and coaches and for the most part, I liked this a lot.
What I Hated
But let’s get to the not-so-great stuff that leaves me undecided.
As much as I love how character-centred this story is, after some time I got a little annoyed with the setting always staying the same. The author’s strength lies in writing dialogue and describing feelings while I didn’t particularly enjoy the descriptive parts. The way both places and outfits were described seemed too exact and sober to me. I know exactly what the dorm rooms look like, but I have trouble imagining them because I’ve only been told what furniture they have, not the feeling they convey. The outfit descriptions were mostly a little better, but not by much. This problem gave me fanfiction-like vibes, to be honest.
Something else that bothered me is how normalized violence is in this novel. I know it’s about a group of hurt teenagers with violent pasts. But Neil almost getting knocked out in the first chapter just for the coach to be like ‘Hey, you okay? He’s a little rough sometimes haha’ and how people just throw punches at each other without serious consequences (aka face injuries)? In some parts it becomes a little too unrealistic for my taste.
I just remembered that in the beginning, Neil’s overreactions got on my nerves. I’m talking Troy from High School Musical – like overreactions.
I don’t think this continued to be a problem over the course of the novel, though.
There’s some other stuff that seems very book-like to me and not like it’d happen in real life. The Foxhole Court has face tattoos on teenagers, too many people speak too many languages without a good reason and there’s that one scene where somebody picks a lock to talk to people who are in this room even though they could just, you know. Knock.
A fanfiction trope that I enjoyed in the beginning but grew really tired of is that Neil wears brown contacts to conceal his natural eye colour. I loved the mystery around it and was really excited for the reveal, but what I got was a lot of talk about how boring brown eyes are.
“And seriously? Brown? How boring can you be?”
Just, no. Stop telling people brown eyes are boring. Just stop. They’re wonderful and deserve all the praise.
I guess this is a taste-thing, but I don’t like that the characters supposedly speak different languages a lot but the dialogue is still written in English only. Sure, it makes sense if the narrator doesn’t speak the language, but when he does? I know that having everything written in two different languages breaks the flow for some people, but I missed it in this book, especially because I speak some of the languages.
But these are all minor things. Let’s get to the heavy stuff. There are some aspects in this novel that seem fishy to me, but because I’m no expert in good portrayals of minorities I’ll just describe some things that might be a problem.
1. The sport, Exy, was created in Japan by a Japanese woman and an American dude 30 years before the story. It got popular in the US as well, but the only Japanese characters in this book are part of the mafia. I mean, c’mon.
2. The only non-white main character is Nicky, an American-Mexican guy as far as I remember it right. (Might be German-Mexican.) Here’s a quote from him after being asked about the relation to his white cousins that I don’t know what to think about:
“Don’t look it, right? Take after my mom. Dad ‘rescued’ her from Mexico during some la-di-dah ministry trip.” He made a show of rolling his eyes […]
I just can’t tell if he’s rolling his eyes because of his dad’s insensitivity or something else. Somebody help me out here.
3. This is also the openly gay character. A kinda-problem I have with him is that despite his fiancé, he hits on everything around him that presents as male. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love the portrayal of a loving open long-distance relationship, but it doesn’t seem like Nicky’s fiancé knows about his behaviour. I don’t feel like I ever get enough info about him to judge if this is a problem or not. What he does to you-know-who, though? Just no.
Also, this is a minor spoiler so mark to read it: [he kisses Neil unconsensually, twice. While Neil is drugged. Unconsensually.] He apologizes later, but I still don’t feel like this is handled like the abuse that it is.
4. Let’s get to a big, big issue. Like I said before, everybody on the team had abusive childhoods and is more or less obviously mentally hurt. One character, though, had problems with aggression in his past and got sued into having to take medication for so-and-so many years as to avoid being put into prison.
Now I don’t know if this is realistic or not, but even if it is: the way he’s described and talked about (one guy calls him ‘monster’ and he’s basically portrayed as The Pure Devil) leaves me with a weird feeling. When he takes his medication he’s a whole different person, grinning soullessly and still extremely violent. And when I say he’s a different person, I mean that he literally says to Neil one time while he’s not on medication,
“It will be a while before we see each other again.” […] “Like this,” Andrew clarified, gesturing between their faces. “It will have to wait until June.”
I’m not in a place to judge this character portrayal, though. Is this realistic or demonizing mental illnesses? Doesn’t this, once again, make one think that mentally ill people who take medication ‘aren’t really themselves’? Or is this just a way to criticise the American legal system?
Honestly, I don’t think this portrayal is at all okay, but I’m not delusional enough to believe I know much about mental illnesses.
Anything else that I disliked isn’t really worth mentioning. Sometimes there’s too much unnecessary information, characters flinch a lot, people stare at each other for ‘minutes’ when the author clearly means ‘seconds’. Some things don’t seem thought through, like why Neil hitchhikes when he could afford a bus instead or that the coach throws things at people to wake them up when he told Neil he NEVER uses violence. But all in all, this is it.
There are female characters in this book and they’re kinda diverse and mostly cool, but none of them play a huge role. This is a book about boys. Make of that what you will.
Like I said before, there is one openly gay character in this first book who is and isn’t good rep. He’s okay in comparison to other characters in the story, open about his sexuality and has a fiancé, but honestly, I got some rape-y vibes from him. Not nice. One character calls him the f-word a few times but otherwise, people are cool with his sexuality.
Again, Nicky and another character are POC, but everybody else seems to be white, a lot of them blonde. (Even though I keep imagining them dark haired.)
One character is physically disabled, as in he had an injury in his hand that makes playing Exy hard, but doesn’t bother him in his everyday life. There’s some ableist slurs used towards him. About every character is mentally hurt from their past and I guess Neil’s anxiety seems described accurately. The group goes to a therapist, but mainly because of Andrew’s medication shenanigans I don’t think this is good representation.
All in all
I don’t want to sound snobbish when I say that I could see that this is Nora Sakavid’s first published work. Her writing style doesn’t always feel well developed and some parts don’t seem thought through. The characters are interesting, but I was almost always aware that they don’t actually exist – they tend to seem cliché or over the top.
Sometimes this book can be very overdramatic, but other times the drama and secrets I had yet to find out about were what kept me going. Not before long, I was so hooked on the story that I kept reading to know what would happen to Neil.
The portrayal of Andrew’s illness still leaves me with a sour feeling, as well as how the majority of relationships Neil has in this story seem abusive and unhealthy. There also isn’t an excuse why some rape jokes and unconsensual kissing went by without being challenged. However, this is only the first book of a trilogy, and even though I don’t know if I want to start reading the second book right away, I have hopes that Sakavid’s writing style, Neil’s relationship and some other things will be improved as the story goes on. I’m not in love with this book, but I’m definitely not yet done with the Foxes.
My Rating: 2/5
I’m really curious: If you’ve read The Foxhole Court, what did you think about it? Do you agree with me? Can you enlighten me on some topics I’m clueless about? Do you want to discuss something? If you haven’t read with the book: Do you want to read it now? Chat with me!