Book Review: ‘Arena’ by Holly Jennings

May 8, 2016     Holly     Reviews

Book Review: ‘Arena’ by Holly JenningsArena by Holly Jennings
Published by Ace on April 5, 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Science Fiction
Pages: 336
Format: ARC, Kindle Edition
Source: Review Copy
3 Stars

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...

Arena by Holly Jennings was a book that, sad to say, deceived me via description. It grew on my once I’d accepted the fact that it was going to be a whole lot less complicated than the back of the book described. There’s not big, dark mystery to unravel, or any dirty secrets to reveal, but Arena does have a good story about empowerment and self-belief in a world controlled by corporations with deep pockets.

The year is 2054. Kali Ling is a multi-racial female badass competing both physically and mentally in the world of virtual gaming, a professional sport that’s male-dominated and corporate-controlled. It’s players have to be in top physical condition, because the activity in the VR games is real, but they also have to be as mentally tough as possible. Because you might not actually die in the games, but you will experience all of the pain and trauma of dying should you be on the wrong end of your opponent’s weapon. Players have to tolerate huge amounts of temporary pain, and doling out that same pain to others, without blinking an eye.

In Arena, VR gamers are the elite, and Kali is right at the top. After suffering a crushing defeat in the RAGE tournaments (think NFL playoffs with a lot more blood), Kali’s teammate-with-benefits dies of an overdose and she suddenly finds herself in the position of team captain. As the first female captain in the RAGE tournaments, Kali is feeling pressure from all sides, and soon succumbs to her own issues with drug and alcohol abuse, as well as a growing addiction to the VR world.

Enter Rooke, the (obviously) good-looking and mysterious new player brought in to replace Nathan after his death. Tension occurs between Kali and her newest team member, but Rooke immediately notices Kali’s struggles, as he’s had his own, and begins to help her find some much needed balance in her life. As they work together, a bond is forged between the two.

The idea Jenning’s had for Arena is a solid one, and the story has some very good things working for it. I like that Kali is multi-racial, and that Jennings spends a good amount of time in the book discussing not only her upbringing, but also the VR games tactics to use her heritage as a marketing ploy. And I also like that so much time is devoted to the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, and its advocacy for change.

But at the same time, I was enticed to read because of the dark secrets of the VR world that the summary teased. And honestly, all of the dark secrets are revealed in the first chapter, and Arena is more about control and power than it is about conspiracy. The idea of attractive young people fighting to the death for the enjoyment of millions? It’s been done before. So having this generic backstory mixed together with a world that has very few hidden secrets to reveal makes Arena a less-than-thrilling read that’s all very predictable in the end.

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