2054. Virtual gaming has gone mainstream. The Rage Tournaments are the new Super Bowl, and 20-year-old warrior Kali Ling, is fast on her way to becoming the MVP of sports entertainment. That is, until her usually unbeatable team Defiance, suffers an embarrassing defeat and Nathan, her teammate/lover, overdoses in her bed.
Ling is ordered to take over Nathan’s captaincy and must guide her fragmented team to victory, whilst navigating the pitfalls of a life in the spotlight, a team owner more concerned with sponsorship deals than the welfare of his players, mandatory therapy sessions and integrating Nathan’s replacement; the brooding and mysterious James Rooke, into her team. Duke Nukem never had to deal with any of this shiz!
Holly Jennings’ debut novel is a well-told and ambitious story, which unfortunately never maximizes its full potential. It’s made clear immediately that the characters are never in genuine jeopardy; once they lose their lives in the virtual world, they merely return to the regular one; train harder, hit clubs and tease the paparazzi. Their main rivals InvictUS, aren’t featured heavily enough to be considered a threat on any personal level, and for that reason it’s hard to take them seriously as dangerous antagonists.
Most curious of all is the titular setting of the arena itself. Given that this is a world where technology has advanced to the point where humans can be transported into real-life avatars, it’s hard not to wonder at the lack of variety shown in the scenery on the battlefield.
Skilled pioneer Ling is an excellent choice of protagonist; particularly at a time when even sci-fi heavyweights like Black Widow, cannot command their own franchise, it’s refreshing to see a young woman willfully take the reigns in a sport dominated by men. That being said, the attitude that is refreshing to begin with quickly grows weary, although her verbal sparring with Rooke remains entertaining throughout.
The rest of the team (Nathan’s former rival Derek, and lovers Hannah and Lily) is given little to do, in terms of their own development. Derek’s lack of resentment at losing his place as head of the team reeks of missed opportunity, and the romance between Hannah and Lily is remarkably obstacle free. There’s no foul play to Nathan’s demise, nor is any suspected. Rooke is a welcome addition, as is the subplot of Ling’s growing dependency on drugs, but the summation of both these plot points lacks the twists you’d expect.
Younger readers will appreciate the concept and entertaining fight scenes, but anyone who spent a significant portion of their formative years sat in a darkened room, barking orders into a headset, while fending off vaguely homophobic slurs from 14 year old boys, may find themselves frustrated that the player setting on this novel is firmly set to safe.
ARENA / AUTHOR: HOLLY JENNINGS / PUBLISHER: ACE BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: 7TH APRIL