My Review of “Arena” by Holly Jennings

25894059A fast-paced coming of age story set several decades from now about players who compete in fully immersive video games. Although I ultimately found Arena an enjoyable and satisfying read, it wasn’t until I decided to ignore several quibbles I had with the debut novel of Holly Jennings (@HollyN_Jennings).

This review is based on an Advance Review Copy (ARC) received through NetGalley. The book is scheduled for release on April 5, 2016.

The year is 2054 and in the virtual world twenty-year old Kali Ling is a deadly warrior, in command of every situation. The real world is quite different. There her life as an elite player in the Virtual Gaming League (VGL) is spent marking time until she can hook back into the virtual again. The VGL is big business and wildly popular, making players like Kali celebrities whose every move is followed by thousands of fans as well as paparazzi. Deep-pocketed corporate sponsors fund the league, and Kali and her peers are expected to play approved roles in public to keep ‘the money’ happy.

After perhaps the worst 24 hour period in her life — favored to win, her team Defiance is brutally dispatched in the seeding round of the RAGE Tournament, the VGL’s premier event, and one of her teammates dies of an overdose after spending the night with her — Kali finds the halves of her life in disarray. Still, she’s named team captain, the first female captain in VGL history. Leading her team through the loser’s bracket to the RAGE tournament final, and then winning the championship, would set her up for life.

Of course there are a lot of obstacles in her way, including dealing with the death of her lover and finding a way to work with his replacement, Rooke, who doesn’t appear to even want to be part of the team. Then there is InvictUS, the group that demolished Defiance in the prelim; they’ve been tearing through the other teams in the tournament, winning each match without any players getting so much as a scratch. There’s no question attaining the championship will mean a rematch, but how do you prepare for an opponent that doesn’t appear to have any weaknesses?

Although the book blurb really plays up the gaming aspect, Arena doesn’t spend much time inside the virtual reality world of the RAGE Tournament. In fact, the vast majority of the book takes place inside the team’s training facility. The hardware/software that makes immersive VR work isn’t explained (which is no big deal) but VGL players can’t do things in the virtual world unless they can also do them in the real world. The RAGE tournament is gladiator style, with swords, axes and the like, so players must be in top physical condition and most have years of martial arts training.

Instead, the story focuses on Kali’s journey, which is an interesting coming of age tale as she tries to find balance between the real and virtual worlds. It was somewhat depressing to think four decades from now racism and sexism will still be problems, but these are issues Kali faces in 2054. There is a romance, as well as extended discussions of Eastern philosophy, which I thought worked well in the context of the story. But, those looking for more “video game action” may be disappointed. I’ve also seen other reviewers refer to Arena as being in the vein of Ready Player One, but I don’t see it; the few passing references to classic video games ultimately matter little to the plot.

As for my quibbles, they are things that casual readers wouldn’t likely notice. But, as a former sportswriter and longtime gamer, a few small details rang false. For example, it is noted athletes were first tried as players because of the skill demands of immersive virtual reality, but it was a failure because “they didn’t understand the virtual world.” In motorsports and even football, VR is used now for training, and of course many of today’s pro athletes game; some of them are quite good. That isn’t going to stop.

I thought it was also odd that Kali’s team was favored to win the RAGE Tournament despite having no captain to set strategy and a preparation method that didn’t include scouting the other teams. Yes, to some degree raw individual skill can lift a team to great heights, but given the money and prestige we’re told is on the line, I would assume the approach Kali eventually adopts would have been the norm going in. There were a few other small things but, as I said, nothing that caused me to stop reading.

In the end, I realized Kali’s story could have been told in any number of settings — other sports or careers — as there is a universal quality to her journey. Once I figured that out, my small issues became moot and I settled in to see how it all unfolded. The ending was satisfying but left room for additional stories set in this universe. If that happens, I’ll be back to see what Kali does next.

For more about the book, visit the author’s website.

4 stars

4 stars

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