Book Review: Gauntlet by Holly Jennings
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 2 of Arena
Publisher: Ace (April 4, 2017)
Length: 336 pages
Get ready, because it’s time to enter the arena again. Gauntlet is everything a reader dreams of in a sequel—bigger world, higher stakes, and even more dangerous and violent challenges. I had a really good time with the first book, but at the same time I was also curious to see how this follow-up would build on its potential and whether or not it would improve on a few of the weaknesses.
Quite a lot has happened since the end of Arena. With her RAGE tournament winnings and money she made from her new found fame, our protagonist Kali Ling has returned to buy out Defiance, becoming the captain and owner of her gaming team. When the story begins, Kali is troubled by a new development that has been sweeping the virtual gaming world—a house. Though in truth, this “house” is more of a colossal mansion. Nicknamed “The Wall”, it sits nestled on a sprawling estate sealed away from the public. For weeks, rumors have been flying around that the best gaming teams from around the world have been invited inside, but no one knows what goes on during these visits. Wild parties? Drugs? Not knowing is driving Kali crazy, and yet she can’t help but keep up with the coverage to see which gaming superstars will show up at the mansion next.
Little did she expect, however, that soon her own team would be getting their chance to visit The Wall. The elusive owner of the mansion turns out to be the CEO of Tamachi Industries, a tech giant which has developed a new kind of gaming pod which, if effective, could change the face of virtual gaming forever. Now the company is on the cusp of revealing their product to the world, and they’re planning to do it with style—by organizing a huge tournament where the best teams from around the globe will be competing for prestige and the grand prize in the form of a nine-figure check. Like all the others before them, Defiance has been asked to meet with Mr. Tamachi at his mansion so he can extend an invitation to join his tournament. Would Kali wish to accept? Well, I think we all know the answer to that.
To start, there were some nice improvements over the first book, and probably the biggest one is the characterization of Kali herself. She is noticeably more mature in Gauntlet, having taken over the responsibilities of being Defiance’s owner. In the aftermath of her recovery with drug addiction, she has also made it her personal mission to keep herself and the team clean, happy, and healthy—even if it means she has to play the mother hen once in a while. Still, on the whole I enjoyed seeing these changes to her personality because they made her a much more likeable protagonist. No longer is she the angry and impetuous teenager she was in Arena; now her thought processes have shifted towards being more level-headed and rational, as well as much less self-centered. As a bonus, for all the scenes we get to watch Defiance kicking ass in-game, we also get to spend plenty of time outside the virtual world watching them grow closer as a team and a family. These were all changes that pleased me.
That said, this book still has strong “Young Adult” vibes attached to it, which if you did not enjoy in Arena, chances are you will also find this sequel problematic. Again, the logic behind the premise is a little shaky and may require a bit of a stretch in imagination. There’s also a romantic side plot that takes up a lot of the focus, and I felt that many of the story’s conflicts are inflated when they are actually very trivial or easily solved. In addition, we did not see an expansion in the scope of storytelling; everything is still seen through the limited sphere of the gaming world behind Kali’s eyes, and as much as she has matured, this bubble is apparently still all she knows. Gaming is like the only thing that exists to her, i.e. in her mind, the only news worth following is gaming news, no one else in the world has any interests besides following virtual gaming tournaments and their players, gamers are the gods of the human race, etc. On a character level, it made her feel somewhat shallow, and on a world-building level, it also meant less of what I’d hoped to see in this sequel.
Still, the story was loads of fun. Just like Arena, the plot was a bit simplistic and predictable, but it also had a lot more action and grit. If you enjoyed the feverish, frenzied tone of the RAGE tournaments in the first book, then I guarantee you’ll love how Holly Jennings has stepped up her game (no pun intended) in Gauntlet. And if you’re gamer, you’ll probably get even more out of the book’s atmosphere and references to games and gamer culture.
Overall, I was very satisfied with this sequel. While a few of the stumbling blocks from the first book have carried over, in general I felt there were many more areas which have been improved. Gauntlet once again fits my perfect definition of pure entertainment—dynamic, fast-paced, and gripping. I sure hope we’ll be seeing more of Kali and Defiance, because it would be so cruel of Holly Jennings to leave us hanging with that ending! I can’t wait to catch up with the team again in the pages of the next book.
*** Originally reviewed at The Speculative Herald ***
More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of Arena (Book 1)