Leif is a thirteen-year-old orphan that won a lottery ticket to train with the master, Tyron, who runs a school for fighters. The trainees combat in Arena 13, a place where bets are placed on who will win, as the object is to be the first person to cut an opponent with a sword. Some fights are to the death and others are not. The combatants have two android-like lacs they learn to fight with in the arena. Lacs is an abbreviation of the word "similacrum" for the android's are in the image of humans. These characters are never really explained. It is hinted that they might have a consciousness and the great arena fighter "Math" relied on his lac like a human but this is not explored.
Leif is motivated to fight in the arena and his father has trained him. I was never sure why he wanted to fight. He's the best stick-fighter in his provincial town. When he comes to the city he wows everyone with his incredible skills, but his first fight is for money not because he loves it. He really doesn't have to overcome many internal obstacles in the plot. External, yes. Internal, no. I really thought this was underdeveloped. Leif's only problem comes from a romantic subplot with a girl and even then his actions are out of kindness and some peer pressure. He does not have much by way of flaws and is pretty mature.
Some contradictions surround his father when he says that he talked about the arena a lot and yet Leif is very naive about how dangerous it is. I would have thought the father would have trained his son to protect himself and warned him of the evil that haunted their family. He'd know his son was a target. Leif is a sensible kid and his motivations for fighting seemed in contrast with the recklessness and danger of being a fighter. When he wins the lottery ticket and Tyron shows him what he's getting into the motivation to stay and his inner monologue as to continue was just that he liked to fight.
The character arc of Leif is not strong. The shows that it was being alone, but this was not revealed in the beginning strongly enough. At least I missed it. Leif has people reaching out to him and being generous. He is not isolated but favored by Tyron. He becomes friends with one of his roommates and Tyron's daughter. Again, just one of many contradictions. I thought the introduction of the game and patterning of the Arena was clunky. Rather than work it into the plot as he does later in the book, the beginning has two pages that say, "Dictionary of Nym." I skimmed it. The Nym language didn't work for me either. They use English to control the robots but its called, Nym. He explains that wurde is different than word, but that is it. Again, I wanted more depth.
The mish-mash of mythologies worked against the world-building. Sometimes I'm okay with a mix but I had a problem with visualizing this story because the Arena is so gladiator-like. I had a picture of Rome which was contrasted by Leif, the wolf imagery, and Midgard that is from Norwegian mythology and the Hob who sucks blood from victims making him more like the vampire folklore from Eastern Europe. My world-building was garbled by the contrasting images.
Kwin is Tyron's daughter and she wants to be a fighter. Her arc is clear although her character is flat because of the first person narration. She's more mischievous and a rule-breaker. She captures teenage rebellion and I found her more interesting than Leif. I would have liked it better if she had been the protagonist. She's flawed, obviously a talented fighter, and oppressed in a prescribed gender role. I recommend skipping this and reading Delaney's Spook's or Last Apprentice series.