spoilers for book one ahead // trigger warning for problematic content (of almost every variety, link in yellow)

Oh man. I can feel in my fingers that this is going to be a long one. A bit of a doozy. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here; I promise it won’t be all doom and gloom because frankly? I didn’t mind this book. Though there are plenty of people who would disagree. So let’s talk about Nora Sakavic’s first book in her All For the Game series: The Foxhole Court.

Because there is, honestly, just so much to get through, I’m going to break this post up into several sections: Background, Overview, Content (and Warnings), Fiction & Believability, Self-Publishing, and Summary.

The three thesis paragraphs are most important in this post. Content (and Warnings) will address the oft-labelled “problematic content” of the book and the veritable trove of trigger warnings posted for the series. In Fiction & Believability, I want to dig deeper into the function of fiction as a genre and the ways in which the suspension of disbelief must hold up the story as well as give readers the space to buy into the narrative. Self-Publishing is important to this discussion, too, as Sakavic self-published this book and, given the book’s content, would not be viable through the means of traditional publishing (i.e. with an agent by an editor at a big house).

Without further ado—let’s tackle this beast.

Background

This is a somewhat unnecessary portion of this discussion, but I want to include it, so here it is. I first learned about The Foxhole Court the way I learn about most books: through recommendations from other readers and bloggers on Twitter. It was honestly because several readers I follow kept tweeting about ‘aftg’ and I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about*. A quick search returned the promising series name: All For the Game.

Step two was to ask someone what the heck All For the Game is and if/why I should read it. I reached out to one of my mutuals and asked what was up with AFTG. She was emphatic that I read it and insisted on updates as I read the book. It happened to be free on the Kindle Store that day (fate, if nothing else) so I downloaded it and started reading it the next day.

She also sent me a compiled list of trigger warnings for the whole series and said I should take a look beforehand if I had any reservations about serious topics. “DON’T GO INTO IT BLIND,” she warned in one of her first messages when I said I was interested in reading The Foxhole Court. “IT’S LACROSSE ON THE OUTSIDE,” another message, emphatic. “BLOODY VIOLENT MAFIA ON THE INSIDE.”

At the very least, colour me intrigued. From what I can gather, too, AFTG has something of a cult following. There is, on the surface, only a niche following of readers who adore the book and series and are endeared to the characters therein. Though as much as there are people that like it, there are plenty that don’t. But I was encouraged by the enthusiastic ones more than the ones who don’t like it, so I read it.

Overview

The Foxhole Court is the first book of three in the All For the Game series. It’s a sports-centred narrative, focused on Sakavic’s fictional team sport, Exy. By description, Exy is an aggressive sport that is some blend of lacrosse, soccer, racquetball, and hockey. (Sakavic herself only uses lacrosse and soccer as comparative descriptors, but I think racquetball needs to be on the list, too, for the way that the court is described: an enclosed box court with plexiglass walls and strategies allowing players to bounce the ball off of the walls and ceilings.)

Exy has been developed to the point of being a professional sport as well as functioning at the collegiate level, which is where the book’s events take place, as a part of the NCAA. Like many other college sports, the NCAA Exy leagues have different levels (AFTG only deals with the Class 1 division) and geographical divisions (southeast, northeast, etc.).

The book’s principal focus is Neil Josten, a boy on the run from his dark past and traumas. And this is a dark, dark, dark past. Even the book’s blurb on Amazon doesn’t give away the depth that the book goes to:

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.

From Amazon’s blurb, The Foxhole Court (All For The Game #1), Nora Sakavic

It seems to allude to some darker themes (Neil’s father, The Butcher, being one) but certainly not anything that warrants an emphatic warning, such as was sent to me: “every trigger warning you can think of…aftg has it.”

Content (and Warnings)

The list of trigger warnings I was sent is not short. Here is the list if you want to have a peek. The warnings are listed individually as well as explained in further detail at the bottom. My eyes got wider and wider and wider the further down the list I went. The first word that came to mind was, as it likely it for many other people, “problematic.”

I myself do not have a very long list of topics I actively avoid in literature. I don’t consider myself a “tougher” reader or more “resilient” by any stretch of the imagination. My own experiences inform my comforts and discomforts, as is the case for everyone else. Hence, trigger warnings for extremely sensitive topics. And I think it’s important to realise that books having problematic content or reading problematic content is inherently (and ironically) problematic.

That being said, this book is…a lot. It’s more than a lot. In many instances, it’s too much. There is an absolute baseline you need to be willing to read in order to go forth with this book, and this baseline happens to be very, very high. Harassment, drug use, abuse, trauma—and these triggers are not one-off occurrences either.

Of course remembering that this series takes place in some sort of semi-realistic collegiate environment does not make it easier. Neil is somewhere between 17 and 19 years old and the rest of the team are (I think) between 18 and, let’s say, 24 years old. They’re not really adults by any stretch, especially when placed in a very explicitly stated college setting. Given that they’re not adults, they’re overseen by a trio of adults with various amounts of influence: their coach, the team’s physical therapist, and the school psychiatrist/psychologist. But these adults, it should be noted, are not always good influences (especially their coach, David Wymack).

Young adults (if they can even be called adults) running amok, literally beating each other up and threatening one another with knives and verbal threats of murder, are hard to sympathise with. In some ways, it’s also hard to believe. (More on that in a moment.) They’re barely supervised at the best of times and completely out of touch at the worst. The team bully and intimidate Neil upon his arrival, harass and threaten him throughout the summer of their training, and refuse to listen to him when he says no. It’s abusive, manipulative, and downright terrifying.

Yet there is something magnetic about this story. For me, it was the characters. They’re all bad people. Categorically, each person (with maybe the exception of the psychiatrist, Bee) is bad. Morally corrupt in more than one way and willing to turn a cheek when something bad is happening (like when Neil is drugged at a bar by his own teammates). In real life, this is absolutely reprehensible and I can say that without hesitation. But in this story, it’s strange and horrifying—like a car crash you can’t look away from.

We rarely get stories about bad people who do bad things on purpose and refuse to change. There’s no redemption arc for the Foxes, no retribution for their actions and transgressions. In a way…that’s exciting. I can see the appeal—and surely felt it through the story, transfixed by these awful, terrible, no-good Exy boys—of reading about these bad and morally reprehensible characters who stay bad. So what does that mean for the story as a whole?

Fiction & Believability

There’s an argument, regarding fiction, I’ve seen cropping up in some reading spaces that’s caught my eye. This isn’t realistic. / This isn’t believable. / I can’t really see this happening.

Other readers are quick to fire back: It’s fiction, it’s categorically not real. / I’m not reading a fictional book because it’s supposed to be real. / Believability doesn’t matter in fiction.

Fundamentally, I think there are truths to both sides of this argument. Suspension of disbelief is a tenet of fiction as a genre. We all know, when we read fiction, that it’s not real. But we still have expectations for what’s realistic, what’s plausible, at some minimum.

It seems to be that a crux of the dislike readers have of The Foxhole Court and the series as a whole is that it’s not believable. One Goodreads review lists a series of “no” statements all the way down, denouncing the book and all the contents therein:

“no, teenagers are not typically ushered into nightclubs to throw back shots. / no, the NCAA would never permit a psychotic player to don a school uniform on the condition he be stoned out of his mind on antipsychotics the entire time. / no, antipsychotics don’t actually get you high like that. / no, it is not possible to play a fucking contact sport with knives strapped to your body, and who seriously fucking does that, ever, anywhere, anyway?”

Julio’s review of The Foxhole Court, 1/5 stars, reviewed July 18, 2013

Julio said “no” a total of 16 times in his review. (The above is only an excerpt of the entire “no” 1-star rant.) Safe to say, he wasn’t a fan. That’s not to say he doesn’t have some salient points, though.

The use of the NCAA as a structure for Exy at the college level is important for believability. We know about the NCAA, we can figure out (or find out) how it works pretty easily. It grounds a piece of fiction in what we know is real and a part of reality.

So how does The Foxhole Court do or not do that? And does it matter?

Plenty of readers will decry, “Yes! It matters!” Others are more flexible.

“[T]he biggest complaint is that it’s unrealistic but like. it’s fiction. so yeah.” my AFTG-adoring friend writes. And note that she’s not disagreeing. She’s not insisting that it is realistic. Fundamentally, there is an acknowledgement that The Foxhole Court isn’t realistic in a lot of important ways. It’s just that she doesn’t care.

Another element of realism that bears scrutiny is the presence and function of the Yakuza. (Weird, right?) I don’t know much about the Yakuza, personally. Julio insists that there is no Yakuza foothold in South Carolina, or San Francisco, or New York. Whether or not Julio is an expert or intimately familiar with the Yakuza is irrelevant. What matters is how it functions in the story. And…it kind of doesn’t. (At least, not yet.) What its presence does is add an element of danger. But there’s plenty of that already (from Neil’s father as The Butcher, to the individual traumas Neil and others suffer throughout) so…why bother?

I don’t have an answer. (Unsatisfying, I know.) This is largely due to the fact that…I kind of didn’t care if it was believable. It had stretched so far into the realm of impossibility that it no longer mattered how much it tried to be realistic (and it didn’t try that hard to begin with). At some point (pretty early on, honestly) I very much came to terms with the fact with, yeah, this is not likely. Or realistic. But it’s kind of fun. So why not keep going? Where do we have to draw the line at plausibility, believability, or reality in fiction?

Half of the team (“Andrew’s crowd” as they’re sometimes referred to) all speak fluent German. I’ve never met a single college man, let alone five, who is fluent in whatever foreign language they’re taking for their university requirement. Kevin Day speaks German, French, and Japanese. Neil speaks German, French, and Spanish. This is, of course, in addition to all of the characters speaking English by default. In my life, the multi-lingual people I’ve met have been few and far between and they’re rarely white. To have an amalgam of cis, white, American boys who all speak fluent German presses the realm of possibility even more than the made-up sport of Exy does.

If you don’t want to read it, don’t. If you start reading it, and don’t want to finish it, don’t. It’s the same with any other book.

Self-Publishing

Nora Sakavic self-published The Foxhole Court in 2013. It’s available to purchase on Amazon, produced in paperback, for roughly $27.

It’s vitally important, as we transition from topic to topic, to recognise that this is a self-published book. It’s the crux of my argument for the existence of this book. Because as it stands—as it is written, the way that it’s written, the kind of characters it hosts, the topics it addresses, the problematic scenes, the thin stretch of believability—The Foxhole Court cannot be published by traditional means.

When I say “traditionally published” I mean having an agent to represent the book/series who submits it to an editor to be published by a house (like PRH, Little Brown, Hachette, etc.). The content alone would keep agents at bay. The trauma and harassment and veritable trove of trigger warnings would make any publisher nervous. It’s no wonder Sakavic chose to self-publish.

What that says to me, too, is that this is a self-indulgent story. She’s not writing for anyone’s tastes but her own. Who am I to tell her no? Whether you agree with her decision to make it available to others or not, she has, and she’s been more than a bit successful.

The Goodreads page for The Foxhole Court has over 50,000 ratings and boasts an almost-5-star average. The Amazon listing has over 3,000 reviews and nearly 5 stars, too. The reviews there, the more recent ones that is, are more forgiving that our dear Julio on Goodreads. What is it that readers are latching onto? It’s the characters.

“I love these boys so much,” Ebony’s review is titled. “If you like character driven stories with no preciousness, or Mary Sues, you’ll like this,” C. Sroye’s review begins.

AFTG certainly lacks in “preciousness,” but readers are not as much perturbed by the sensitive and disturbing content as much as they are wholly devoted to the characters.

The publishing industry, currently, is not focused on character-driven narratives. Most traditionally published books have a sound plot or overarching theme driving them, though their characters may or may not be successful. There’s a saying that’s been tossed around (the origin of which I could not find) that goes something like: “Good characters can carry a bad plot, but bad characters cannot carry a good plot.” (I think there’s a half-and-half truth buried here, too.)

Certainly the characters in AFTG are not good in any moral sense, but they are, to me, interesting. The plot is almost irrelevant because I’m so much more focused on the changing dynamics between the teammates and the personal stakes fuelling their games. Whether or not that’s your cup of tea isn’t really for me to decide.

And clearly it’s right up some readers’ alley. With over 50,000 reviews and ratings, and a dedicated cult-following, it’s hard to say that The Foxhole Court has been unsuccessful as a self-published book. That’s not to say it would see the same kind of success—if any—through traditional means.

Summary

Am I going to read the next book in the series? Probably not. As much as I like the characters, the plot doesn’t carry me enough to want to tackle the next book, The Raven King. While a strong plot is not necessary (for me) in a solo novel, as a part of a series, the driving plot needs to be stronger, more developed, and, yes, more believable.

Do I think The Foxhole Court is problematic? Yes. There’s no dodging around that fact and no pretending otherwise. That’s not going to stop me (and it didn’t), and others, from reading it. With trigger warnings available, anyone can decide for themselves if they want to engage with the content.

Is it believable? No. Like many have mentioned, there are plenty of issues with the “realistic” elements of the book to prevent it from really being believable. But there are some readers (myself and my friend included) who aren’t too concerned with whether or not this book about a fictional sport is ultimately believable. I enjoyed it for reasons other than its believability (or lack thereof) as I have mentioned throughout this…rather long rant.

Will it ever make it to the mainstream publishing market? Unlikely. As much as devoted fans and Neil die-hards might want The Foxhole Court to find a home with an agent and publisher, given the content and general tone of the story, it’s highly unlikely. And it’s doing fine right where it is as a self-published novel series. If Sakavic isn’t open (or wanting to do) to a massive re-write of the series and content, it likely won’t find a place on the shelves alongside traditionally published novels.


Good grief! My goodness. I need to take a breath after this one. Phew!

I intend to go into further detail** about some of the substantive issues with The Foxhole Court in another post. This will include how one might edit for believability, a potential reduction in the “problematic content”, and a suggested plot restructure to name a few.

That’s all for now—

Happy reading!


*This is not an isolated occurrence. I frequently find myself squinting at jumbles of letters and squinting, trying to put together the titles from just the abbreviation. It’s like some strange, literary version of Wordle. ACOTAR, TSIASOS, AFTG…cue me sitting and scratching my head and going ‘Huh??’
**It will, of course, all be my opinion as both a reader and a writer.