Arena by Holly Jennings

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Arena by Holly Jennings

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Luke Marlowe
Reviewed by Luke Marlowe
Summary: A fast paced debut novel, Arena is a sci-fi novel which combines an exciting and bloody video game-based story, with themes of romance and self-development. It's not a book for everyone, but it's certainly a strong first novel.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: April 2016
Publisher: Ace Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1101988763

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Kali Ling competes in the RAGE tournaments – a competition of Virtual Gaming, where the world's best gamers compete in a fight to the digital death. Every fights is broadcast to millions, and each player leads lives of fame. Although the weapons are digital, the players feel every blow… Kali Ling – the first female captain in tournament history, is famed for her prowess – but has her world shaken when her teammate and lover overdoses. Now, she must win the tournament and uncover the truth about the tournament, for the Virtual Gaming League has dark secrets. And the only way to change the rules is to fight from the inside…

Virtual Gaming, or eSports as it tends to be called, has risen hugely in popularity in recent years – with over 71,500,000 people worldwide tuning into competitive gaming during 2013, and the number steadily growing. The industry is plagued by accusations of drug abuse, with players utilising prescription medication such as Adderall in order to stay awake and alert. The gender split in the industry is fairly large, with the vast majority of fans male, so unsurprisingly sexism is rife, although female representation in the industry is increasing.

Author Holly Jennings, a lifelong gamer who has spent many hours in the virtual worlds of World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, explores the industry to great effect in her novel, setting things in a near future where the Virtual Gaming League is one of the major sporting events, and its competitors lauded like footballers are today. The issue of drugs is tackled head on, and the lead is a strong female with a complex and interesting personality. Plot developments come swiftly, and the violence is frequent and bloody – even when the reader knows it's taking place in a virtual field, some of it is still genuinely gory.

There is a love story thrown in, and whilst initially it seems a little inappropriate, it's convincing and written well – although thankfully the main aim of this plot is to encourage the development and growth of the lead character. Kali Ling is truly a fascinating character, layered, complex, and a good companion for the reader throughout the book, and her rise is a gripping one to watch. I can't deny that there are some issues I had with this book – some prose is a little clunky, and the Hunger Games meets Ready Player One shtick is a high bar that isn't always explore to the full potential it suggests. However, I'm inclined to remember that this is just the first book of a series, and I'm sure the potential of both this world and the character of Kali Ling will be explored more going forward – and I'll definitely be reading.

Many thanks to the publishers for the copy, and for further reading I would suggest hunting out Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – a cracking video game themed sci-fi that is peppered with clever pop culture references.

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