Book Review: Arena by Holly Jennings
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of Arena
Publisher: Ace (April 5, 2016)
Length: 336 pages
As soon as I heard about Arena, I knew I had to read it – especially after finding out its premise and learning about how the idea was conceived. As a lifelong gamer, author Holly Jennings was inspired by eSports and its role in the future of video games, as well as the current issues making waves in the industry today. Needless to say, my own fascination and love for gaming naturally led me to her debut novel, but I was also curious and excited to see some of these social themes would be handled in the book.
Turns out, Arena is about a lot more than its blurb promises. One part science fiction drama, one part action-packed suspense, and one part steamy romance, the book follows the trials and tribulations of protagonist Kali Ling, professional gamer and the first female captain in the Virtual Gaming League. The year is 2054, and major technological advancements in virtual reality have vaulted video gamers into the spotlight. Once hooked into the system, players essentially become their avatars, participating in encounters that look and feel real. Player-versus-player arena battles to the digital death are broadcast live to the delight of millions of fans who see this as a harmless way to enjoy the brutality and bloodshed. The VGL Championship game has become the new Super Bowl, and its players are the world’s new celebrities.
Kali is living the life she’s always dreamed of, competing for her shot at the finals when suddenly her team, Defiance, is hit by two major setbacks. First, they lose badly in the opening round to InvictUS, a talented new team that has seemingly come out of nowhere to take the league by storm. Second, that very same night, Defiance loses their member Nathan to a fatal drug overdose. Traumatized, Kali is haunted by scenarios where she could have saved Nathan, if only she had seen the problem or done something differently. The guilt eats away at her, throwing her off her game. It also doesn’t help that Nathan’s replacement, Rooke, is proving extremely difficult to work with. Defiance now only has one more chance to win the championship, and no mistakes can be made. In order to get her team back on track, Kali will have to find her balance before she spirals further out of control, destroyed by the very thing she loves.
On the surface, Arena would appear to be every gamer’s private fantasy. Games feel more realistic and immersive than ever before. Players are able to literally step into their characters’ shoes, competing for higher stakes and greater rewards. Gaming, which once was a hobby ridiculed and looked down upon in the past as a frivolous waste of time, is now the most popular sport on the planet. There’s no longer a stigma associated with being a “gamer geek”; if you are good at the games you play, you actually have the opportunity to go pro and be worshiped by a legion of adoring fans. Holly Jennings plays up the intensity of the action, both on and offline. Every weekend, teams of five meet in the arena and battle each other for victory, but the rest of the time, they’re either training rigorously to maintain peak physical condition, or out there hitting the media circuit and club scene to maintain their image. Just because gaming has reached a whole new level, it doesn’t mean that the players have stopped roleplaying. The scope of it has simply expanded, with the RP happening in front of cameras for the entire world.
At the same time, the dark side of gaming rears its ugly head. In a lot of ways, Arena can be seen as an allegory for some of the problems we see in gaming today, like sexism and the stereotypes that gamers face. Kali’s gender and half-Chinese heritage is a point that comes up a lot in the course of this novel, sometimes as a barrier and at other times as a selling point to be used by Defiance’s team owner. The book’s narrative also encompasses the cutthroat world of professional sports, exploring the physical and mental stresses of trying to stay relevant in a world where fandom is fluid and heroes are disposable as yesterday’s leftovers. The VGL only wants to show its viewers the glamorous side of the sport, covering up scandals like drug use. Gaming addiction, which is an issue the gaming industry faces today, is addressed as well. Where does the fun end and the obsession begin? And when a favorite hobby starts leading to unwanted obligations, does that also take away some of the joy?
I really enjoyed this novel, precisely because it asks some of these important questions. However, I was also a little surprised by the Young Adult vibes I got from it. Some concessions were made, sacrificing the complexity of the plot as well as the depth of world-building. We get little about the world outside the limited sphere of the VGL that we see through Kali’s eyes, and the story is also on the relatively simplistic side with a predictable ending that ties things together a little too neatly. There were some inconsistencies in the plot and character motivations, such as the team owner’s insistence that the team going out to party instead of staying in and training, when training is the clearer path to success and victory. Staying visible for the sake of the sponsors is important, but I imagine it would matter even more to the sponsors to have their teams win. I also wondered at lack of media coverage for InvictUS. They are the rising stars killing the competition, and should have been the ones dominating the magazine covers instead of Kali and Rooke’s love life, yet no one seems to know who they are or where they came from because details like that are overshadowed by the heavier emphasis on the story’s romance. In some respects, I feel this novel might appeal more to a teen/YA audience, despite its more serious concepts and older protagonists. This isn’t necessarily a criticism though, since I can see Arena as a book with great adult and YA crossover appeal, and I also frequently delve into the YA genre. In the end, despite some minor bumps along the road, I did have an excellent time with this story.
All told, this was a lot of fun. Arena is a powerful and dynamic multilayered experience: pure excellent popcorn entertainment for the win, with some deeper themes to chew on for the bonus round. If you’re a gamer or a reader with a passion for fiction about video games, you have to do yourself a favor and check this one out. Holly Jennings’ debut is a fast-paced, gripping read that will keep you turning the pages.