The Next Competitor by K.P. Kincaid
It’s the all-important Olympic season and eighteen-year-old American figure skater Alex Grady is discovering that there are many obstacles along the way on his quest to win a gold medal. For starters, he has to get through endless hours of practice under the watchful eye of his stern and slightly terrifying Russian coach. Then he has to contend with his all-American rival, Tanner Nielsen. Tanner has the talent, looks, poise and picture-perfect girlfriend that make him the ideal poster boy for United States figure skating.
Alex has the talent and his looks aren’t bad, but the filter between his brain and his mouth is missing, and he definitely doesn’t have a girlfriend. He doesn’t have a boyfriend either, although he finds himself thinking far too much about pairs skater Matt Savelli, which is ridiculous, since goody two-shoes Matt is totally not his type. Besides, Alex doesn’t have time to worry about dating, not with the Olympics looming, right? Can he find a way to go for the gold and still remain true to himself?
I recently was saying I’d love to see Olympic caliber athletes in m/m romance books so I was excited to read this particular young adult offering. Unfortunately The Next Competitor takes a well known Olympic figure skater named Johnny Weir, renames him Alex Grady and writes a story that has many similar elements from Weir’s movie “Pop Star on Ice.” I’m not sure if this is called fan fiction or simply stealing from a celebrity’s life but either way the choice is incredibly disappointing and nowhere near as good as Weir’s movie. If you want to see what an Olympic athlete’s life is really like instead of reading this, I’d suggest you watch the movie. Since the book plays so heavily off of Weir’s life, I was frustrated with the lack of originality and creativity. Ultimately disappointed on several levels, I wouldn’t recommend this book.
The story introduces Alex Grady early and the overwhelming similarities to Johnny Weir are so obvious and in your face, I wonder if this is even legal. I wouldn’t know honestly but here is a list of details afforded to Grady that are identical with the real life skater Weir. He is an elite athlete with a very stern Russian coach that doesn’t seem to like him very much but knows how to train champions. He chose this coach to help vault him to Olympic level while his last coach was too much like a comforting mother to give him the discipline and training he needed. He is more of an artist than a jumper. He can execute a triple axle with ease but struggles on the quadruple jump. He has a huge following in Japan and Korea but struggles with being liked by the US Skating Federation. He has a long standing rivalry with the golden boy of US skating. He has never officially announced he’s gay but it’s common knowledge due to his “obvious” behavior. His family is from Pennsylvania but moved to New Jersey to train with the Russian coach.
These are some of the details that are given about the main character Alex Grady within the first 30 pages or so and the ones listed above are identical to the skater Weir. So clearly the author is not only basing the book around a real life figure but pretty much stealing the majority of his life. There are a few very minor differences such as Alex is 18 instead of Weir’s 25 with this being Alex’s first Olympics to Weir’s second. Additionally Alex trains in Canada prior to the Olympics set in Europe. However besides these minor differences, the book even goes so far as to describe some of Weir’s costumes and skating moves. For example:
Alex’s main opponent is a very thinly veiled Evan Lysacek who is renamed as Tanner Nielsen. He is the All American skater heavily favored to win. There is even a Russian superstar that can land quad jumps in his sleep (Evgeni Plushenko) and a young Japanese skater (Daisuke Takahashi). So clearly the 2010 Olympic drama figured heavily into the story. The disappointing aspect is that none of these characters are original and all based on real life characters with very little change.
Although no doubt some coincidences can occur in a story about skating to real life figures, the gross use of such in this story is sad. This is not the case where a few details show a surprising similarity to real life figures but in fact, the book characters are almost all taken from the world of skating. While reading the story, I felt the lack of originality to be disappointing. Instead of taking common figures and making a twist, creating something unique, the story often relied on past events in the skating world with such an obvious hand. Since I’m not an expert on fan fiction, perhaps this is where the story comes from and is perfectly acceptable as such. For a book that is charging money, this seems suspect but as I said I wouldn’t really know.
Moving on, the story follows Grady through the Olympic season as he skates in the Grand Prix events and finally the Olympics. His character is obsessed with winning and has lost the love of skating along the way. He is not a very likable character and this is the danger of taking a well known figure and altering his personality slightly. As the book goes on the somewhat abrasive Weir clone becomes even more so as his obsession with winning and perfection turns him unsympathetic and frankly an ass. Grady lashes out at everyone who attempts to help him and struggles to get some kind of control over his emotions and needs. Grady’s love interest is in Matt Savelli, a character loosely based on ice dancer Charlie White. Matt is a better character as his connection to the real life ice dancer is obvious in the details, but differs enough from reality to offer a different and interesting spin. Unfortunately he isn’t well characterized as why he puts up with Grady’s repeated emotional outbursts and immaturity isn’t well explained.
The writing is pretty poor as the narrator is first person present tense and uses an over abundance of teenager slang and cadence. The story is difficult to engage and get into due to the choice in tense and writing but more so the prose is stocky and choppy. There is no flow and ease to the writing which tends to alternate between sympathy for Grady and his difficulties and exposing his actions for the ill tempered brat he appears to be. The skating events lack a tension and intensity, even as they are meant to keep the reader in suspense. There are several characters who speak other languages and thus their dialogue is stilted and awkward. Some of the characters speak perfect English with seemingly random phrases thrown in “how you say” which makes no sense considering they are speaking perfectly before that.
On the plus side, the strength of the author’s writing comes through in several emotional and poignant scenes. Here the toll being an elite athlete is shown with good detail while the bathroom scene between Alex and Tanner is touching. While athletes may seem perfect, they have their own internal battles to fight and this is shown very well. I wish the author had spent more time showing the emotional complexities that translate well but too few in the story. The personal connections between the characters are at times warm and caring, tinged with humor or wry understanding which helps give them more depth than their wooden outlines. Again there is enough that the story didn’t need to rely on real life to craft these characters.
Overall the book failed to deliver a unique fictional account or a well written one. Even if the book hadn’t obviously ripped off real life figures, the lack of tight plot, complex characters, and believable tension would have caused its downfall. Yet the surprising hints of compassion and poignant emotion show some promise. Unfortunately when the negative aspects combined with the lack of originality, the outcome is a book I can’t recommend. Perhaps others won’t mind but I prefer to read unique fiction.