“Arena” is the debut novel by Holly Jennings, another subscription pick by my bookstore. “Arena” sat on my bookshelf for several months after coming home from the bookstore. The opening blurb on the inside cover reads, “EVERY WEEK, KALI LING FIGHTS TO THE DEATH ON NATIONAL TV. SHE’S DIED HUNDREDS OF TIMES. AND IT NEVER GETS EASIER…..”. After it stops shouting, you are informed how she is part of a Virtual Gaming League, competing in the premier tournament of the season. “And though their weapons and armor are digital, the pain is real”. And this is about where I tuned out and the book was closed and left unread. When it came time to pack reading material for a family vacation, I was looking for some relatively light reading and I came back to this book. My bookstore subscription picks have a consistent record for being good reads so with a back up book chosen as well, “Arena” came along.
In the near future virtual gaming has become nationally televised sports with teams and sponsors for a wide genre of games in different leagues. Gaming athletes physically enter pods and their avatar enters virtual realms to be watched by millions as they compete in real time against each other. For some reason the gamers physically feel everything that happens to them in game and thus experience death over and over again.
Like current professional sport leagues, there is drug testing but here in the highest level of game play, with the rich sponsors, drug testing is one of those pesky things the athletes don’t have to worry about. What is important is going out to the clubs and projecting the image of the team, doing sponsor events and participating in generating multi-media frenzy for the team. Feeding the fans and ensuring eyes glued to screens when the team plays.
During game play the gamer athletes enter the virtual world where everything seems hyper-real; the warmth of the sun beating down making you sweat in your armor, the sound and feel of the wind rushing past in the high grasses, the scent of lavender, and then the pain of weapons tearing into you are possibly disembowled/beheaded/dismembered or just incapacitated in some way. Freshly back from death, the gamers hold press conferences and then head out to the clubs for a night of being seen and par-taking in substances to liven up the real world.
Enter Kali Ling, a life-long gamer who has made her dreams come true by entering the big leagues. Kali is a member of the 5 wo/man Team Defiance, who find themselves on the losing side for the first time in the final game of the pre-season, as they now head into tournaments for the Rage-Alternate Gladiatorial Events (RAGE). In this tournament, two teams enter the virtual gaming field and attempt to capture the fortress of the opposing team by using stealth and skill, ultimately hacking at each other with medieval weapons for the win. Unique in the fact that they have a higher female to male ratio than other teams and highly favored to be the top seed in the tournament, it is a sore blow to find themselves in the “losers” bracket because of this loss.
Kali and the team captain, Nathan, have been hooking up on the side and this night is no different as the two leave the club. To help him pass out more easily, Nathan take one more substance as the two finally settle in for bed. Hours later, Kali wakes to the horror of Nathan’s corpse beside her. His death written off as a previously unknown heart defect with no mention of the involvement of drugs. And so begins a downward spiral of guilt and anger for Kali.
The team must move forward or forfeit and with so much money riding on the line, quitting isn’t an option. Kali is assigned team captain, a new member, Rooke, is found and Kali is sent to the team psychologist to make sure she is coping properly. Eaten with shame for her part in Nathan’s death and dealing with anger at the league and system for making Nathan essentially disappear, Kali starts misusing medication and losing herself in the digital world, as she disconnects from the real one.
From the first meeting, Rooke rubs Kali the wrong way and she pushes back out of resentment. Rooke, struggling with his own secrets, sees the warning signs in Kali and in his own way tries to reach out to her. Complicating the issue is that the team marketing department has decided to push Kali and Rooke as a new “couple” in advertising for Team Defiance. It’s not too hard to figure out where the story goes from here.
“Arena” was an fun read. The plot device of virtual gaming leagues and virtual addiction felt like possible predictors of our future. Fluffy enough for vacation, engaging enough that I quickly plowed through it, enjoyable for giving me a romantic subplot with attractive people in peak physical performance and satisfying in a happy ending. I debated between 3 and 4 stars and honestly it’s more like a 3.5. What ultimately took the score down was a lot of repetitive descriptions, especially each time the characters entered the virtual world, and predictable plot. Won’t be at the top of my future recommendation lists but depending on what you are looking for, I’d put in a good word for the book.