Review: Arena by Holly Jennings
In the year 2054 the E-sport or gaming insdustry is very different. First and foremost it is unbelievably popular and secondly it is no longer played by pimply faced nerds holed up in their parents’ basements to only appear a few times a year to face each other in mock battle. Instead the gamers of the future are highly trained, professional athletes who climb into pods in order to enter the virtual world and compete in different games and everything experience in it feels real. Among these games the Rage tournament is the most popular, and the gamers who fight one another in it are heald in the highest of regard. One of the most popular teams is Defience comprised of two men and three women where one of them is Kali Ling.
An avid gamer from childhood Kali follows the instructions from the owner of the team, that consist of playing hard and partying harder; every night. Kali’s life comes crashing down around her when Defience loses their first game and is forced into the losers bracket in the tournament and when her lover and team member Nathan dies of an overdose. She is named the captain of her team and tries to keep the team from being eliminated while juggling personal demons, insomnia, drug addiction and a strange relationship with the man replacing Nathan. The preassure from the game, her boss and society as it is presented is about to break her before she realizes that she has to break with conventions and demands.
Arena, at first gives the illusion of quite the interesting future. Where technology has caught up with every gamer’s dream of being able to immerse themselves in a world they have only glanced at, longingly, through a screen. This is but the surface; What Jennings does is take the reader to the flipside of gaming on this kind of level. She intelligently adds the human factor to it, most likely taking a hint from what popular sports are like today and professional wrestling in particular. The roar of the crowds, the demand to always be in the media, the clubbing and rampant drug abuse. There is quite the interesting discussion as it pertains to being able to separate oneself from the virtual world; what happens when it bleeds into our reality? Very much like the movie Running Man there is an important topic here that needs to be broached; entertainment at what cost, and to what end?
Even if Jennings’ has written a very interesting book in Arena with a female protagonist she does not take it far enough. There are too many questions left unanswered when it comes to the future in which the book is set and how come it has all the settings of a totalitarian state. More could be said about the present reflected in 2054. The book also suffers from not really knowing what it wants to be. At first glance it would appear to be a Young Adult book, but there are some subjects that might be a bit too stretched for a young reader to grasp, old gaming consoles or games for one, and the romantic aspect.
If there is to be a follow up to this tale, and there should be, it needs to dig deeper and be brave enough to challenge the reader, as well as society.