[Book Review] Arena

Arena / Holly Jennings (Powell's Books)

Competitive gaming is getting hot these days, and Arena takes it into a future with fully immersive and reactive virtual reality.  Gone are the days of competitions orchestrated by manual I/O devices like mouse and keyboard, and the rigors call for peak physical condition from the competitors.

Gladiatorial arenas of old have nothing on the Video Gaming League and RAGE.

Kali and her team enter this year's RAGE Tournament the top picks to win it all, only to meet a brutal defeat from a team no-one's heard of before.  Image is nearly as important as game play, so when their manager names Kali team captain, she assume's its no more than a publicity stunt for the novelty of the first female-led team in RAGE Tournament history.  But it turns out she's suited to the role, perhaps even better than their manager wants, and she'll need her entire team behind her with what's coming up.


Commercially, I think this book will do reasonably well.  It fulfills a number of high-interest check boxes while capitalizing on a Hunger Games like feel (only without the whole Capitol/District conflict) thanks to the brutality of the virtual reality experience and the tournament setting.

But for me, as a gamer and a martial artist, it was a bit of a miss.

I find it far easier to be negative than positive when writing a review.  If something bothers me it stands out and generally incites complaint.  If a book is amazing it leaves me grasping blindly for words.  This book came in at about the middle, some good, some not so good, and various comments about the wisdom (or lack there of) present.  In this case I made notes in the ebook as I read.

My reading notes/marginalia:
p. 40 - Speed balling, cause that's never killed anyone ever...
p.46 - Yes, seriously, who approved that?  Someone in the future didn't learn at all from past nuclear disasters that building a new one on a major fault line would be more than a little problematic?
p.48 - Well damn, guess I was right (re: speed balling).  also, the death wouldn't have been that quiet or clean... the body does not respond well to its respiratory system shutting down.
p.63 - Chris Kluwe might disagree (re: traditionally sports athletes don't have what it takes to be a video gamer)
p.129 - I'm sorry, there's no way this is a new concept or that they haven't been doing something along these lines so far (re: the revolutionary idea of training against simulations of opposing teams and their tactics)
p.167 - Um, wtf?  Are they suddenly having sex?  What is going on here?  (final conclusion, it doesn't seem that they were, but still, what just happened with their hips sinking into each other?)
p.190 - I can't help but have some love for the inclusion of bo staff.
p.190 - "So not impressed.  If he'd been shirtless, maybe." hahahahahaha
p.190 - I do think the author really fails to respect how dangerous it is to spar solid wood bo, even with protective gear (that they're not wearing).  I call shenanigans on the lack of broken bones.
p.194 - "You have no idea how much I want this."  Only the sneaking around in the back halls turns out to be a quest for pizza.  Love it.
p.241 - Again, I'm not buying this.  Yeah, publicity is good, but mental and physical well being needed to excel in a demanding sport does not pair well with nightly heavy intoxication and clubbing.  It would effect performance.
p.261 - Of course, where would gaming culture be without rape jokes.  Not unexpected, but /sigh
p.265 - Yes, people will watch it if it becomes a torture fest, so they're right to worry.
p.317 - Oh hi, Neo.

Going into the setting there are just a number of things I just don't really buy.  Among other things, I'm just not convinced that Kali is the first ever female team captain.  In a co-ed league, I don't buy it.  Even if it was just a marketing scheme, someone would have thought of it beforehand, and I fully expect there would have been at least a handful of all-female teams.  Similarly, I don't buy the idea that there's such a difference between "gamers" and "professional athletes," especially since everyone playing on a professional level effectively is a professional athlete and martial artist.  And the idea that they'd be required to go out, club till the wee hours of dawn, and heavily imbibe drugs and alcohol every night for the public eye?  No.  I'd buy some of that, but every night is pretty ridiculous with the training regime they are expected to maintain as well as their performance as athletes.

From my reading notes, I clearly was unsurprised at someone overdosing but also felt that the characterizations of gaming and celebrity cultures weren't too far fetched.  The ending has Kali going a bit too Neo for me.  And if you don't get it, go watch The Matrix.

For whatever reason, my biggest complaint is Rooke and Kali full contact sparring with bo (and yes, they were wooden staves).  No.  Just, no.  That doesn't leave inconsequential bruises, that breaks ribs and hands.

The book did make me laugh, and hallelujah, there were no love triangles.  No love triangles is worth at least a full star bump in the rating.  Light read with a strong YA feel.

Advance Reader Copy courtesy of Ace (Berkley Publishing Group) via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; changes may exist between galley and the final edition.

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