Review: “Arena,” Holly Jennings

Pros: Fascinating world and characters
Cons: Shaking a serious addiction seemed to come a little too easily
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Holly Jennings’ Arena takes us to the 2050s, when virtual reality gaming has become a huge sport. A player’s avatar is themselves, so they have to be in incredible shape and train constantly. They also have to maintain just the right image outside of the games in order to keep their sponsors and team owners happy. Defiance is one of the heavily-favored teams to win the upcoming season of capture-the-flag style matches (with swords and armor–think MMO PvP as a spectator sport). In the last match of the pre-season, a previously unknown team, InvictUS, handily slices and dices them, dropping them into the losers’ bracket. Just to round out their string of terrible luck, Nathan, one of the members of their team, dies of a drug overdose and a new, unknown recruit is added to the team right before they dive back into the competition.

Kali Ling is our point of view character in this fascinating world. She’s made team captain, and if she can take her team to victory she’ll be the first female captain to lead the way to a championship win. Her team’s owner did this for the publicity it will generate, and she has a lot to learn about captaining a team. She was with Nathan when he died, and it’s sending her into a tailspin. She isn’t just drinking and doing drugs–she’s becoming addicted to the virtual world itself, and she’s started losing time while in the real world.

 

Rooke is the new recruit, and he’s the one to upset the apple cart. His and Kali’s relationship starts out as one of hostility, and I love watching it oh-so-slowly change. The characters in general have some nice depth to them (except, perhaps, the team’s owner, who’s pretty much just an asshole). Rooke is my favorite–he comes across as arrogant and uncaring, but he gradually displays surprising depths.

I like the pacing in here, it builds up very well and the final fight between Defiance and InvictUS held my attention. The descriptions of sword-fighting, daggers, etc. are a lot of fun to read. It’s just as interesting to watch Kali’s increasingly smart attempts at bringing her team together and training for the re-match. My only problem was how quickly Kali kicked her addiction once she decided to do so. It felt sudden and just hand-waved away.

Kali is flabbergasted that everyone is ignoring Nathan’s death. It was billed to the press as a heart problem rather than an OD, and his name dropped out of the news as quickly as he was replaced by Rooke. Watching her attempts to get him and his problems recognized gets interesting to follow.

I didn’t think a story that is essentially about sensationalized MMO PvP combat would be interesting, but I really enjoyed it!

 

NOTE: Book provided free for review by publisher.
Expected publication date: April 5, 2016

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