Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, where each week one of our contributors goes crazy over a book they just can’t seem to get enough of. Intrigued to find something new? Seeking validation for your secret passions? Required Reading gets you.


By Arpad Okay. “Mi gradimo took. Took grade nas. We build the island. The island builds us.”

That island is Balkans Arena, where we endure the bleak fate of young Ben Sokol. It’s a tumultuous time for Ben: his grandmother has passed, so his father, Fran, decides that they will both travel to his native Bosnia for the funeral, to forge a connection from Fran’s estranged family to his modern life as a single parent expatriate. Shockingly, Ben is kidnapped shortly after the burial — stolen away to the island, a gladiator prison for children. Pit fighters for a gambling circuit.

Balkans Arena is caustic, it’s corrosive, and it is frightening. Author Philippe Thirault shows us what Battle Royale might look like if it existed today, operating without the public’s knowledge, let alone its permission. It is told explicitly from the perspective of a participant instead of the viewing audience.

And the artwork from Jorge Miguel — with stark, realistic hues supplied by colorist Javi Montes — puts you there. Across the board, their balance of detail and their natural expressionism is perfection. Each panel has just enough drawn into it to make everything feel immediate and real; an unflinching documentary of events that remains simple and clear. And yet, the art is able to go places real life cannot without compromising its reality, the truth found in its story, and so much of Balkans Arena has the freedom to operate as an implicit story. Nobody explains to us that Fran’s life is a mess; we see his destructive behavior and are allowed to draw our own conclusions, or maybe even judge him ourselves.

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Miguel’s ability to capture a moment’s feeling enables Thirault to hold off on exposition that might otherwise clarify the characters’ motivations. Their facial expressions broadcast what they think — or they don’t, to the same powerful effect.

The setting is the real world, kicking off in Bosnia in the early Nineties. Fran is a soldier in the early days of a government-sanctioned campaign of ethnic cleansing against Muslims in the Balkans. Government is supposed to provide our moral litmus test for defining acceptable acts of violence. They are our appointed keepers of the peace, the folks we give the guns to. We trust that when they commit acts of aggression, it is because that is what must be done. So what happens (to all of us) when they commit genocide?

Right and wrong is dealt with on many levels in Balkans Arena. It follows reality for its model, not just in its setting and tone, but by making right and wrong a matter of personal judgment and context. Watch Fran Sokol make choices that feel right but turn out to be wrong. How does he turn his life around? His attempt at transformation thrusts his mess upon his family, whose affairs are an even greater state of disrepair. No character has a stronger claim to righteousness than the other, be they the Sokol family or the secret cabal of kidnappers. The villains are characters just as much as the heroes: neither lack for heart and neither are without flaw. Once the bodies start falling — and there is a lot of killing in this book — I was surprised by the feelings I had for some of these awful people who have done horrible things. They are cold-blooded, and they are evil, but somehow, they remain human.

Balkans Arena is a gut-wrenching look at what humans are capable of. It juxtaposes Fran’s powerless grief over the dehumanizing process that turns Ben from a sweet child into an animal pugilist. The tough love of the trainer, it could either come from a place of pity or a place of greed. Ben’s opponents won’t pull punches, so training him to be merciless is doing Ben a favor as much as it serves the interests of the island’s boss. The lesson they are passing down is the world will not restrain itself. The boss will murder, torture, and manipulate to get what he wants, not because he is evil, not because he doesn’t know what evil is, but because he has seen the dark side of the world and doesn’t care about what the difference between good and evil means anymore.


Scarier than the idea of a monster that can hide in plain sight is that everyone is on that same sliding scale of subjective morals, not just the “bad guys,” and this — this — is how dark it goes. In the world of Balkans Arena, change only comes from force. The police can’t (and, in some cases, won’t) make any progress on Ben’s disappearance and so Fran is put in a place where he is willing to commit crime to stop someone else from committing crime. We trust authority to keep the peace — and when they fail? Fran, this widower ex-soldier trying to save his son, is as scary as any villain in this book.

“You have to keep forgetting everything you learned in your old life. On this island, you’re cut off from the world.”

Why tell this story now? Does the island exist in our world? A nation predisposed towards racial discrimination treats crimes against the lower classes with less sincerity. The exploiter at the top exploits to get rich, and the exploited at the bottom exploit because breaking the law is their only means to escape poverty. “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” It seems like such a simple charge: “be good.” But striking a balance between being complicit in society’s wrongdoing and withdrawing from it completely is not the easiest thing to do. That’s the lasting effect of Balkans Arena.