Arena by Holly Jennings.
My copy: Ace. April 5th, 2015. Egalley (review copy), 336 pages.
Source: I received this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, Ace and Berkley Publishing Group!
A fast-paced and gripping near-future science fiction debut about the gritty world of competitive gaming…
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…
So what is Arena about? It’s about the hard world of virtual gaming in the future, to put it simply. The protagonist is Kali Ling, an elite-level gamer who is competing with her team in the RAGE tournament. The book, surprisingly, is more about addiction and depression, and coming out of that dangerous spiral downward in one piece. I was not expecting that at all; I thought the book would have more political themes and a more complex plot. Not so. It’s 90% training for the championship and 10% the actual virtual reality battling. With the overarching plot of dealing with and overcoming addiction.
Kali was an extremely unlikable character in the beginning. A junkie, she had to hit rock bottom before she could start to heal. I really didn’t like her for about the first half of the book. Though, the fact that the book was absolutely not what I signed up for probably had to do with my dislike of her character. I don’t pick up books about teen depression and addiction and all that unless it’s on purpose — and Arena didn’t tell me this was what it was really about. Kali did grow on me as the story progressed, and she changed a lot, which was great to see, but I felt that her decision at the very, very end of the book was so cliche, last-minute, and ultimately predictable. It felt both in and out of character for her. I guess I’m just unsatisfied with the ending.
The newest member to Kali’s team was Rooke. I liked Rooke a lot. He was kind of a douche in the beginning, but he became Kali’s rock, and it was awesome seeing their hate turn to love. They developed a great friendship. (Ahem, as a side note, this might not be the best book for younger YA readers. Nothing explicit, but there’s gore, language, using, and sex depicted.) Rooke had his own demons and it was interesting to learn what they were. I actually think it would have been interesting to have the story told from Rooke’s perspective, to be honest, since I thought that his viewpoint was far more interesting than Kali’s. Mm-hmm, Kali really was hard to root for in the beginning.
There’s no real villain in this book, which was confusing. Yeah, Kali’s team’s manager was a douche, but he was doing what a manager does, albeit not in a very friendly way. But he was doing his job to make Defiance the biggest team in the world. Their opponents were InvictUS, absolute brutes on the battlefield, and while they were the ultimate “boss battle”, they weren’t actually that menacing. I expected lots of cheating or behind-the-scenes manipulation, but Arena was pretty straight-forward in terms of plot. It was more of an emotional journey — totally a character-driven novel rather than a plot-driven one. Sigh. I thought “virtual gaming” would equal “awesome plot” and, sadly, this did not happen.
Pacing-wise, Arena is a very fast read. It’s snappy and action-packed. I would have blown through it faster had I had any sympathy for Kali. In terms of world-building and setting… it’s set roughly fifty years in the future in Los Angeles. And you only really see the dorms, the training center, some clubs, a few press rooms, and the fantasy-world fields of the virtual games. World-building was pretty slim. Indoor training was pretty huge. I appreciate reading about some awesome training sessions, but not an entire book of them.
There’s not much else to say about Arena. I didn’t like the first half very much, though the second half got a lot better. But I still wasn’t a fan of Kali and I expected a more intricate plot and real villain (“addiction” doesn’t count as the villain when the book isn’t even pitched as an emotional/personal journey). I was expecting more Sword Art Online. Instead, the few virtual reality gaming sequences we did get felt more like capture the flag. Arena wasn’t bad, it was just totally not what I was expecting, and, sadly, didn’t impress me with what it did give. ♦
Have you read Arena?
If you haven’t, would you be interested to?
What’s a book about gaming you recommend?
Comment below letting me know!
And, as always, happy reading!