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‘Fence: Striking Distance’ weaves queer romance into competitive combat sports

‘Fence: Striking Distance’ cover
A detail of the “Fence: Striking Distance” cover illustrated by Johanna the Mad.
(Little, Brown)

The members of the Kings Row fencing team are on a quest to win the state championship for the first time. They definitely have their work cut out for them, but their coach has a plan.

In “Fence: Striking Distance,” an upcoming novel by Sarah Rees Brennan, the boys will have to tackle some new team-building exercises that will strengthen their bonds and bring them all closer. Of course, there will be some bumps along the way.

Based on “Fence,” the ongoing graphic novel series by writer C.S. Pacat and artist Johanna the Mad, “Striking Distance” will see the familiar characters from the elite Kings Row Boys School in a new original story involving a heist and some pretty bad dates. The “Fence” comics, from Boom! Studios’ Boom! Box imprint, launched in 2017.

In a phone interview from Ireland, Brennan explained that, for her, “Striking Distance” was a chance to further explore the comic series’ personas, their feelings about fencing and more.

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Sarah Rees Brennan
Author Sarah Rees Brennan.
(Edel Kelly)

“We thought it’d be nice to take a step back and look at the characters and their relationships,” said Brennan, an author known for young adult fantasy novels including “The Demon’s Lexicon” trilogy and “In Other Lands.”

Among these characters is Nicholas Cox — the secret illegitimate son of a former champion fencer — whose grit and natural abilities helped him earn a fencing scholarship despite his lack of proper training and technique. His rival and roommate is Seiji Katayama, a nationally ranked elite fencer who outclasses most of his peers, including Nicholas. Seiji’s sights, however, are set on beating Jesse Coste, Nicholas’ half-brother.

The Kings Row team also includes reliable and respected team captain Harvard Lee, carefree playboy Aiden Kane and Eugene Labao, a kindhearted jock.

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“I love that it’s such a casually diverse series,” said Brennan of the “Fence” comics, noting both the racial diversity reflected among the main characters as well as the queer relationships. That’s a big change compared to the prevailing attitudes when her first book was published in 2009 — at the time, there was more pushback against including LGBTQ romances in YA literature.

“It’s a sign that we’ve come really far, although not as far as we could,” she said.

‘Fence: Striking Distance’ cover
The cover of “Fence: Striking Distance,” illustrated by Johanna the Mad, features Nicholas, from left, Aiden, Harvard and Seiji.
(Johanna the Mad / Little, Brown)

“Sports are always so deeply personal, and series like ‘Fence’ really get at the heart of that,” said Shannon Watters, editor of the “Fence” comics series, in an email. “Readers enjoy connecting with the feeling of the sport the way that the characters do.”

A sports story that doesn’t shy away from the dynamic action of fencing bouts, “Fence” is also steeped in the school drama of friendships, relationships and rivalries and touches upon issues of class. And navigating feelings requires even more finesse than wielding an épée.

For Brennan, the appeal of the series is how it leans into familiar tropes while adding a bit of a twist. It’s a classic story that just happens to be set in contemporary times, where the stakes are a fencing trophy and the affections of a boy.

“You’ve got one legitimate son who’s like the golden-boy heir to the throne — the fencing throne — and the dark horse, wrong-side-of-the-track contender son that nobody knows about,” Brennan said.

As friends who mutually admire each other’s works, Brennan said she was in constant contact with Pacat to discuss character backstories and other ideas for “Striking Distance.”

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And as the author of the “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” tie-in novels, Brennan is no stranger to penning adaptations.

“In a [prose] book, you’re in [a character’s] head, and you can know what they’re thinking rather than just what they’re saying, like in a TV show or a graphic novel,” she said. “You want that deep dive and you want to feel the people that come with you on the deep dive are rewarded by it.”

‘Fence’ Vol. 3 cover
The cover of “Fence” Vol. 3.
(Johanna the Mad / Boom! Box)

For Brennan, the fun challenge was in making the book accessible to both existing fans and those new to the series, as well as making sure the novel really addresses the “why” and the “how” of things.

“That’s what makes [prose books] different from other stories,” Brennan said. “Why and how are these people like this? Why and how are they good at this? Why and how would someone lose or win and how do they perceive losing and winning?”

“Fence: Striking Distance” is the first book of the “Fence” YA novel series from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and is slated for a Sept. 29 release. The book also features a cover — the exclusive first look is above — and illustrations by series artist Johanna the Mad.

“I think the book does stand on its own and that’s what we intend it to be so people who’d love to see a sports story with a gay romance could just come in,” Brennan said. “It’s a rom-com and a coming-of-age story that you see so often for heterosexual people.

“Everyone should get to see a version for themselves.”


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