As the title also indicates, the stories represent several genres, and Ridler’s writing is equally strong whether penning straight noir, supernatural escapism, or horror-tinged dystopia. And while I genuinely enjoyed each of the offerings in Knockouts, as is always the case there were several that particularly stood out.
“The Savage Games of Peace” is set during the time when Wrestlemania was king and finds a rich kid named Russell staging his own backyard wrestling event, Russlemania. Little do Russell’s wealthy friends realize that the kids from the wrong side of the tracks they’ve enticed with cash to beat each other senseless have something else in store for this year’s main event.
“Blood and Sawdust” is a clever entry that takes a familiar premise, underground bare-knuckle fighting, and spins it off in an unexpected direction. Malcolm and his older brother make their meager living betting on the underground fight circuit. Though his brother is in it strictly for the money, Malcolm is a true fan who knows all the fighters. At least he thought he did. He’s in for quite a shock, however, when he discovers the secret behind how one of the circuit’s regulars manages to keep coming back for fight after fight despite getting utterly annihilated every time he steps into the ring.
“Stunt Girls and Punching Bags” is the wonderfully engaging tale of teenagers Aubrey and Joe. Constantly picked on for being unattractive and a tomboy, Aubrey’s dream is to go to stunt school. She has the rough and tumble skills down, and the scars to prove it. Fourteen but looking barely twelve if a day, scrawny Joe is enchanted by high-flying lucha libre wrestlers. Armed with his trusty Santo mask he intends to show up for wrestling tryouts, his lack of actual skill be damned. Together they spend a magical afternoon, Aubrey showing Joe the benefits of learning from pain, Joe showing Aubrey what it’s like to live life without it.
“Blood That Burns So Bright” is a deceptively complex piece that explores how one individual can come to represent the hopes and dreams of an entire population. Set almost entirely in a dank locker room, the story takes place between rounds of a mixed martial arts cage match. The fighter, eighteen-year-old Sakura, is being steeled by her trainer and mentor, Ned, to return to the ring for one more punishing round with her brute of an opponent. That she’s a young woman fighting a man isn’t what makes the fight unique, it’s that she’s a brightblood (human) facing a deadblood (vampire). She’s not expected to win. She can’t win. Or can she? Demonstrating that events which unfold in a matter of minutes can have an impact that lasts for generations, “Blood That Burns So Bright” is both a hard hitting story and the shining star of the collection.
If you’re a fan of MMA or wrestling these stories will hold a special level of appeal for you, but don’t let that scare you off if you aren’t. Fighting may be the theme the stories are built around, but Ridler’s skill as an author ensures that every one of them hits home on a deeper level than appears at first blush. Go ahead, step in the ring and see for yourself.
Knockouts: Ten Tales of Fantasy and Noir is available as an e-book at Amazon.
And be sure to read Jason’s guest post, “Five Shots of the Good Stuff.”