Book Review: Arena


by Holly Jennings.

arenaArena is the story of Kali Ling, a gamer-gladiator competing in the elite RAGE tournaments. It takes place in the not-too-distant future, where virtual reality games are the latest sports craze. Contestants compete in to-the-death matches, then wake up in their pod, train so more, and do it all over again. They have Hollywood star-like fame, and the lifestyle that accompanies it. As you might guess, that combination of fame, partying, drugs, and an ever-increasingly blurry line between the real and virtual worlds leads to some problems. Add in Kali being the first-ever female captain to lead a team in the tournament, and there’s another layer of stress.

I mentioned last week that this book was currently in my reading line-up. I finished it over the weekend, and it went about how I thought it would. It’s not particularly original or surprising. The characters aren’t particularly stand-out. There are some truly fun moments, and some ugh, did the author really do that moments. I think my biggest problem was that it just felt contrived: the characters, the shoe-horned Taoism, the ‘crusade’ the team starts, all of it. It was clear the author had a “gamers can be cool, too!” message, and everything was in service of driving that home. I don’t even disagree with that point! I’ve got my own share of Sims and Portal and DragonAge and WoW hours clocked. But a novel should be character-driven, or even plot-driven though that’s not my preference. It shouldn’t be message-driven.

And then she had to add in not-so-subtle messaging about female empowerment and drug addiction and the messed-up structure of pro sports on top of that. Again, I don’t disagree with any of her stances on these things! But Arena read more like a ideological platform than an entertaining novel. You can certainly use a story to make a point or promote an idea, but it has to be done skillfully. Certainly more subtly than in this book.

I did appreciate the way both the friendships and romances were portrayed, so the author gets points for that.

But if you’re into the idea of virtual reality, just wait for Oculus Rift to ship this summer, and maybe skip this book.

I give it 2.5/5 stars.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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