Canadian author Holly Jennings is a life-long gaming enthusiast and that really shows in her approach to Arena, her debut near-future sci-fi novel. Arena is Book #1 of a new non-stop action dystopian YA series that features a reluctant heroine who kicks some serious butt. As Chloe Neill wrote, “Think Hunger Games meets Ready Player One,” and IMHO she’s right on target with that tag line. It isn’t either of those novels. Instead it’s its own story – and yet it shares some real similarities with the core of both of them.
So do you need to be a gamer to like Arena? Do you need to be a teen to relate to this book? Even though Holly Jennings was inspired to write Arena by a documentary about young adults who wanted to become professional video gamers, I would still say “Hell to the no” on both of those counts! In fact, people who’ve worked in a corporate environment will probably relate better to this story on some levels. Here’s just one small example why: Our culture views celebrities as a type of royalty, believing the PR revolving around people thrust into the spotlight. It’s the same in this novel, which explores the difference in reality vs. manufactured image. Those same people tend to view the Entertainment Industry as some kind of Artistic Oz when in fact it is a very hard-nosed business underneath everything that looks artistic and fairytale-like.
There’s a reality-based reason so many near-future dystopian novels are being written now, and why a lot of them are being written for YA readers. We can all benefit from these glimpses into what could happen if we don’t get our act together better as human beings. Bonus: We also get the joy of reading fast-paced action novels that show one person can make a difference in our world if he or she steps up to the plate when it counts. Oh, and did I mention there’s romance involved for those of you who like a little love mixed in with your serious butt kicking? That’s a win-win if you ask me. See what you think…
Kali Ling is a huge celebrity. Millions of people can’t wait to tune in every week to see her fight to the death in the RAGE tournament games on national TV. Her reward is the kind of fame that few people ever achieve – the kind of fame the starstruck can only dream about.
“Lily shook her head as she approached.
’Your eyes,’ she said.
‘They can’t see your eyes.’ She pushed up to her tiptoes and brushed strands of raven hair away from my face.
‘Does it really matter?’ I asked.
She frowned. Of course it mattered. Soft and black, my eyes were a distinguishing trait. How marketable.
‘It’s the Death Match,’ she said with a tsk. ‘Everything matters.’…
A piercing scream ripped through the stillness, resounding off the tower’s walls. My ears perked up, and I seized the dagger at my waist…
‘Really? Did they tell Hannah to go down easy? God, they’ll do anything to add tension.’
My chuckles faded when I met Lily’s taut expression. She shook her head, drew an axe from her belt, and crept toward the tower’s entrance.”
The price for Kali’s fame? Well, one of them is that she’s lost count of the number of times she’s died – yep, you read that right. She fights to the death, and she dies. That is, her digital avatar dies – over and over and over again – in every way imaginable. Every fight is a fight to the death. She and the other RAGE celebrities are this century’s gladiators. And, even if she doesn’t die, she suffers horrific wounds.
Now you may think, so what? It’s just a digitized game avatar, right? What’s the big deal about that! No pain, no gain. Wrong! RAGE tournaments may look like just a game to the millions who tune in but the people who fight in those tournaments feel the wounds and feel the death every time. Yep, it feels like Kali really dies every time her avatar dies. If someone chops off her arm, it feels like her real arm has been chopped off.
“My back hit the wall.
Cornered. First rule of fighting: never get cornered. Damn it.
One Eye closed in.
My chest tightened until I gulped for air. No, I was fine. I’d died before. Simulations. Practices. They teach you how to die. Fighting with honor. For the show.
…My head snapped to the side, vision reeling. Pain blistered across my face with the sharp sting of a rubber band…
Cold steel kissed my skin. I gasped and bowed my neck in. Come on, Kali. Fight. Every nerve in my arms and chest ached. The trembling in my hands descended into violent shakes…The dagger dug into my throat, sharp and burning…”
Gaming has changed dramatically from the games we now play online and through our gaming systems. The people who fight in the RAGE tournaments are peak-performance athletes – think Olympics athletes. And they are multi-disciplinary athletes who are experts in all kinds of fighting disciplines from around the world, both ancient and modern.
Kali grew up in San Diego and this is all she ever wanted to do. She couldn’t believe it when she auditioned in Los Angeles and was accepted; however, she had no clue what she was getting into. She doesn’t mind the non-stop training and the continual need to perfect her craft. That she expected because how else is she going to stay on top in the games?
What she didn’t expect was the huge price of doing what she’s doing; physically, mentally, and emotionally. What she didn’t expect was that RAGE tournaments are, underneath it all, a cut-throat business, not a game – or, actually, a game with real live and death stakes – a kind of game she and a lot of her fellow athletes were not prepared for at all. People have really died because of the behind-the-scenes game, where business executives play with their athletes’ lives as if they were actually avatars or objects to be toyed with.
As the first RAGE captain, Kali feels a professional responsibility for her team members in addition to feeling like they’re family. She knows she can’t stand to let them be mistreated as human beings any more than she can stay quiet about how destructive the way they’re being treated is for RAGE as a business. The attitude is to use them until they burn out, or literally die, and then to find some new eager naïve kid to replace them – and that can’t continue – Kali has to do something to stop it, but what? How can one very young woman with no real business experience take on such a powerful and corrupt business, and win?
Kali literally and figuratively kicks butt, and the cost proves to be huge for doing that on both counts. She’s a mixture of vulnerable and fearless that makes a very sympathetic character because, although she is physically fearless, she is still feeling her way in the world. Coming up against the harsh realities of how people get treated in the business world, and how little they are valued as individuals, is a rude awakening to say the least. And there is a love interest. I’ve purposely stayed away from a lot of details in this review, including that one, because I don’t want to give away too many spoilers.
I could not put down Arena by Holly Jennings. I don’t normally read other reviews but I did glimpse at a few this morning after I’d written the above portion of my review. I was surprised to see that some people didn’t give this novel very high marks. At first glance I was puzzled but, as I looked more closely, those reviewers tended to come across as pretty young teens. I’m wondering if the deeper aspects of this novel are beyond their sheltered POV.
It’s not until you get out into the world and become financially responsible for yourself that you begin to actually see behind the Wizard of Oz curtain – the curtain that we used to call the adult conspiracy as kids – that thing our parents protect us from. I realize it’s not going to be politically correct to say that and I may get negative comments about it – too bad. It’s the only thing I can think of to explain their reaction. When you’re not open to seeing something then it doesn’t look authentic. This novel uses a near-future professional gaming world to peel back and shine a light behind the celebrity, corporate, and other curtains in our society – maybe some people just aren’t in a place where they can look at that even if it is in a sci-fi environment.
I loved every minute of Arena, even when I hated what was happening to the athletes. It makes for one hell of a fast-paced action-packed read with lots of suspense and characters I could relate to. Is it your cup of tea? I can’t say but the author has provided an excerpt on her web site, so click here if you’d like to get a slightly deeper glimpse into the Arena world.
Can’t wait to read it? Arena will be published on April 5, 2016 but it’s available for pre-order in several formats now. Click on the link below and you can have it the instant it’s published!
I’d love to get your comments on Arena, Holly Jennings, and/or this review.