& Review: Arena by Holly Jennings

Arena by Holly Jennings. Publisher: Ace, April 2016

Arena by Holly Jennings. Publisher: Ace, April 2016

The Book Itself: The pixelated font for the title is a great idea, and while I don’t quite understand why we only see the back of the person I assume is supposed to be Kali, I’m glad this book isn’t relying on the whole pretty-men-and-women-sell-book-covers idea.

My Review: Every week, Kali Ling fights to the death on national TV.
She’s died hundreds of times. And it never gets easier…
The RAGE tournaments—the Virtual Gaming League’s elite competition where the best gamers in the world compete in a no-holds-barred fight to the digital death. Every bloody kill is broadcast to millions. Every player is a modern gladiator—leading a life of ultimate fame, responsible only for entertaining the masses.
And though their weapons and armor are digital, the pain is real.
Chosen to be the first female captain in RAGE tournament history, Kali Ling is at the top of the world—until one of her teammates overdoses. Now, she must confront the truth about the tournament. Because it is much more than a game—and even in the real world, not everything is as it seems.
The VGL hides dark secrets. And the only way to change the rules is to fight from the inside…

I think I might be forever ruined for books having to do with virtual reality due to Ready Player One. It was just so. Damn. Good. And everything else seems to pale in comparison.

Arena is the story of a young woman who has become a celebrity in her sport – virtual reality gaming, which in this world is bigger than the NFL and NBA, etc. – getting swept up into the high octane lifestyle, only to realize that there are real consequences to real actions in the real world. Plus, she’s in a really important tournament that could win her fame and glory forever.

The premise sounds amazing. And there were aspects that I liked about it. Kali, with the help of a fellow teammate, re-grounds herself in reality with the help of Taoist philosophy and principles, as well as martial arts. I liked that juxtaposition of her virtual life and the real one, and I think the author showed off the differences between that well.

But the scope of the book felt off to me. I’m trying to count back, and I think there are only three settings in the entire book: the virtual battlefield, nightclubs, and the training compound where Kali and her team live and practice. And while I’m sure there are books with fewer settings, this one felt so closed off.

I think my main problem is this virtual reality game they excel at. Here is the game craze sweeping the nation, addicting thousands of youth playing it and watching it being played: capture the flag on a field with two castles on either side. Every scene in the virtual world was in the same scenario. There was no exploring outside of that field, no objective other than defeat the other team and capture their castle. When I think virtual reality, literally millions of possibilities are out there for me to think of, to explore. All I got to see with this story, with this team, was one war game scenario, played over and over again with slightly different strategies.

There are supposedly other tournaments for different virtual reality games in this world – virtual car racing is mentioned a couple of times. And sometimes I felt as if I would rather read a scene about literally any of the other games, because I didn’t understand the replay appeal of this one. I don’t really buy that Kali becomes so addicted to the virtual world of a single field and castle, identical to every other field and castle she plays in the same game. Why would that be better than training in her compound, going out to nightclubs, eating real food and talking to real people?

I get that gaming addictions are complex, multifaceted, very real things. But I don’t see how this game is addicting. I could definitely see an addition to a virtual reality version of an RPG or quest scenario games where there’s variety in opponent and setting. But I don’t see the appeal of plugging in again and again to a field and your castle for ten minutes at a time.

But I digress.

The romance feels a little forced because it happens mere days after the former romantic interest dies. There is a lot of focus on tanned skin and chiseled jaw lines, which tend to make me roll my eyes. But their rapport is solid, and Rooke and Kali truly help each other out in different ways, training together physically as well as mentally, helping each other move past their gaming addictions.

The plot is rather predictable: the team starts falling apart and then they come together in zero hour, fighting their way to the final match up with their Arch Rivals. The ending opens up the story for potential sequels, which might be interesting because maybe FINALLY they will explore more of this world, virtual and otherwise, but I don’t know if I will stay along for the ride.

My Grade: C-


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