The story is told in first person by a teenage girl called Joella, who has an Aloof Big Brother called Peter and an adopted little sister called Liane, who has a hand puppet called Bro Rabbit that she takes everywhere. The three children have spent the last period of their lives being shuffled to and fro between their divorced and benignly neglectful parents, and due to a lapse in communications between adult parties they are left waiting at a train station. A charismatic, persuasive, handsome and extremely likable man called Hythe turns up and persuades the children that he's been sent by a relative to pick them up and unfortunately they go with him.
One very disorienting, traumatic and unpleasant trip later, Joella, Peter and Liane find themselves in a galaxy far away, on the planet Vexak, in a containment cell within a facility called the Galax-Arena. Hythe isn't a friend of the family after all, he's a trafficker who abducts physically fit children who nobody will particularly care about or miss and brings them to the Galax-Arena where they are forced to perform extreme acrobatic feats minus harnesses and safety nets for the entertainment of the local population. The Vexa audience are plugged into a system that that feeds them the children's adrenaline surges as they perform, so the Vexa get all the excitement and rush of a near-death experience without the personal jeopardy. The ultimate high and the event everyone comes to the show hoping to see? A fatality.
The children of the Galax-Arena have formed a somewhat chaotic community spirit in the face of their imminent deaths. They call themselves the Peb and consider being called a 'kid' or 'child' the worst kind of insult. Most of them come from third world countries, some so young they can barely even remember their lives on Earth. They speak a self-taught pidgin English they call 'patwa', which serves as the only common means of communication between them. The perilous nature of their day-to-day existence makes them clique-ish, aggressive and competitive, and they have all formed something of a Stockholm Syndrome attachment to their keeper/trainer Hythe.
There are two ways out of the Galax-Arena. You can do what you were brought here to do and die in the arena for the locals' entertainment. Or if you're injured or considered otherwise unfit for further performance, the Vexa do still have some use for you. Some of them like to keep humans in sealed terraformed tanks as pets, for instance, if you're lucky. If you're not, there's the level on the facility where vivisection happens. And bear in mind that being unfit for further performance includes simply growing too old for your adrenaline surge to be exciting enough for the Vexa to get worked up about. If you somehow survive too far into your teens? That's it.
Peter and Liane are both athletically inclined and physically hardy and Peter has a competitive streak a mile wide. Joella? Uh.... not so much. The only reason Hythe even abducted her along with her siblings was that taking her was simpler than leaving her behind.
Galax-Arena has one of the most notorious plot twists of an Australian YA novel for its time, and can still surprise readers now.
There was a stage show adaptation of the play in the late 90s, and a film stuck in Development Hell for several years that isn't likely to happen any time soon. There is a sequel to the book called Terra Farma.
Galax-Arena contains examples of the following tropes (warning for spoilers):
- The Ace: Peter, who's pretty much the golden child between him, Joella and Liane, is great at gymnastics, and quickly becomes one of the shining stars of the Galax-Arena. Takes a darker turn when he fits in so well he begins to join Hythe in collecting kids for the Galax-Arena. He ends up broken after the final confrontation, and is pretty much a shadow of his former self at the end.
- Aloof Big Brother: Peter to Joella and Liane.
- Ambiguously Brown: Joella lampshades that her parents brought her up to not see race, so she describes various members of the Peb by their skin, hair and eye-colour rather than identifying them by ethnic group. But the narrative makes it clear that most of the Peb are from third world countries, and many of them are dark or brown-skinned.
- Angsty Surviving Twin: Mariam after Istar dies in the Arena.
- Arc Words:
- "Out de dar an' into dess" ("Out the door and into death").
- "Hip hop hai! Ya gon' die!"
- Authority Equals Asskicking: Played straight by Hythe, who cajoles and bullies the Peb by turn. Averted by Leeward, the Peb that the others look to as an authority figure, who believes that everyone's chance of living longer depends on their ability to work together.
- Broken Bird: Mariam in the final third of the book.
- Cheerful Child: Some of the younger peb, but especially Eduardo.
- Creepy Doll: Bro Rabbit, creepy handpuppet to be exact.
- Decoy Protagonist: A variation; Peter practically has "golden child who's going to become the hero" written all over him... but he's neither the protagonist or, really, the hero. The actual hero is Joella, who is far less confident, skilled or charismatic.
- Disposable Vagrant: With very few exceptions the Peb are street children from third world countries, targeted not just for their performance skills but because nobody will miss them.
- Divided We Fall: Hythe plays the Peb off against one another, and deliberately pairs up Peb who don't get along to perform in the Arena. If the performers dislike and mistrust one another, there's more chance of an accident happening... and that's what the Vexa come to see.
- Downer Ending: Joella, her siblings and a few Peb do escape but Peter's pretty much broken, they'll be on the run forever and they know that children will go on being abducted and used.
- The Empath: Joella. She notes that it's the only remarkable thing about her.
- FaceHeel Turn: Rather than face death when they're too old to perform anymore, Peter and Allyman join Hythe in controlling and recruiting Peb.
- The Fagin: Hythe is part zookeeper, part trainer, part mentor to the Peb.
- Genki Girl: Fenja.
- Ice Queen: Presh.
- I Just Want to Be Special: Joella feels rather inferior to her 'golden child' big brother Peter and her little sister Liane with her 'newsreel face'. Being exceedingly average becomes a matter of life and death once she's in the Galax-Arena.
- Jerk Jock: Alleyman, the star of the Galax-Arena and a sneering competitive bully to boot.
- Non-Action Guy: Joella is uncoordinated and not remotely physically fit for a career in the Galax-Arena.
- Power of Trust: What Leeward believes in. If the Peb stick together as a community and trust and support one another in the Arena, everyone's individual chances of survival improve.
- The Promised Land: Leeward dreams of an island with a beautiful coastline and a tree he calls his 'ocean tree'.
- Slipping a Mickey: Hythe gives Joella, Peter and Liane spiked hot chocolate and biscuits, to lower their defences and dope them up when he abducts them.
- Street Urchin: Most of the Peb. Eduardo comments that all he remembers about his life on Earth was being frightened and hungry all the time. Here at least he's fed and sheltered.
- These Hands Have Killed.
- Token White: Joella and Peter are among a distinct minority of white kids amongst the Peb. The Peb are clearly aware of this, as demonstrated by their testing-the-water taunts of 'Hey wyatt kid, ken ya do dis?' as they show off their skills when introduced to the new arrivals.
- Waif Prophet: Liane, using Bro Rabbit as an intermediary. At the start of the story he's just her Security Blanket. By the end of it, she's going into regular fugue states with him on her hand, he's accurately predicting people's deaths in the arena, and the peb are speaking to him and deferring to him as an authority figure.
- Would Hurt a Child: And very much so.
- You No Take Candle: Patwa, the Peb's self-taught form of pidgin English and the only language common between them all. The book contains a helpful glossary.