By: Holly Jennings
Release Date: April 4, 2016
Series: Arena #2
Received From: Publisher
(All reviews are our own, honest opinions.)
Never have I seen a second novel in a series so completely outdo the first in nearly every way. I’ll be honest here. I probably wouldn’t have picked up Gauntlet by Holly Jennings if the publisher hadn’t sent me a digital copy. I found Arena, the first book in the series, disappointing. I could see the potential within the novel and desperately wanted to love it, but found it fell short of the mark. I was hesitant to start reading Gauntlet.
It is immediately obvious that author has grown as a writer. Gauntlet is an exciting, suspenseful, near future sci-fi that will have you rooting for Kali and Team Defiance all the way. I am eagerly awaiting the next book in the series. Because dear lord, people, that cliffhanger!
Nearly all of my gripes with the first book are addressed and fixed in this one. Not all of them, maybe. There were one or two things which still bothered me a bit, and one was most definitely mentioned in my review of the previous book.
While the first book follows Kali as she struggles with overcoming addiction, the sudden death of her boyfriend and teammate, and winning the RAGE tournament, this one takes a bit of a different turn. Kali is now owner of her own team, Defiance, which she is still acting captain of. Now Kali has new problems – how to pay her teammates and employees, how to please the sponsors, how to deal with a teammates relapse, all while staying true to her beliefs and attempts to clean up the pro-gaming circuit. On top of that, there’s a new type of immersion pod directed by an advanced AI instead of real people at real terminals and a new surprise tournament the inventors are hosting. Team Defiance will now have to compete against the best teams in the world, including Kali’s role model.
The stakes feel much higher in this book. The scope moves from solely on Kali and her own very personal struggles to the team at large and how her actions affect her friends and the gaming community at large. The stakes are higher. There’s a lot more on the line than Kali’s health or dignity or even the success of the team within the tournament. There are very real enemies Kali must fight. But these aren’t the sort of villains we have in, say, high fantasy. There is no Sauron to destroy here. Instead, we have a press intent on destroying their reputation, corrupt tournament officials who would rather see Kali and her principles out of the league than change their own morals and standards, and an AI that seems to be somehow targeting Team Defiance. Things that have no visible beginning or end. Things that can’t be fought the way that Kali and her team fight their enemies while in-game.
Something that bothered me about the first book was that it didn’t feel as if the story was set quite as far in the future as it was. There were very little indications that the world was much different than it is now. Gauntlet felt much more sci-fi than Arena. While not included in any sort of overabundance, it was obvious that Kali doesn’t live in the world of today, or even the next handful of years. This helped make the world feel more real, like it really was forty years in the future where the dreams of today are finally being realized while still having some stubborn holdover tech from today.
Now, one of the biggest issues I had with the first book was the presentation of the game itself. Standard gaming features were missing. There was no menu system, among other things. While there still doesn’t seem to be any way for the players to manually log themselves out of the game, which sounds both terrifying and potentially problematic, some of these issues are addressed with the new version of total immersion pods introduced here. The handling of things by an AI not only makes the game more interesting as a viewer (and readers), but takes out some of the inherent problems with using real flesh and blood coders to create in-game enemies and scenarios in real time as Kali and the others are plugged in as well. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Programmers aren’t gods. They can’t magic a scenario and enemies with a few quick strokes of a keyboard all while monitoring the player’s condition and needs. Using the AI cuts out the vast majority of these issues. While it doesn’t seem apparent that there is any way to log out of the game short of dying, the AI does improve the game.
The other characters were also more prevalent here. In the last book the characters seen the most were Kali, obviously, since the series is from her point of view, and Rooke. Here, we get a lot more time with the rest of the team. It’s nice to see these characters developed a bit more. None of them seemed as thin or one dimensional as they did in the first book. Each of them struggles with their own demons. They all have pasts, hobbies, and lives and personalities outside of gaming and Team Defiance. Interpersonal relations suffer and are reforged throughout the novel. It isn’t just Kali struggling this time. Its all of them.
Despite all of this happening at once, the pacing never suffers. We see more of the characters interact without the action stopping altogether to do so. There is more focus on Kali’s teammates and their struggles, but we never stop to, say, switch points of view. Everything is viewed through Kali’s eyes, both as a friend and as team owner. She gets involved when she must, either with a shoulder to lean on as a friend or as an owner when she has to put her foot down on a matter. It’s a thin line between friendship and boss she straddles and, though it is apparent she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she does it with a fervor that is very admirable.
I honestly didn’t think I’d say this, but I really enjoyed Gauntlet by Holly Jennings. It was fun. There was a palatable sense of suspense. In-game fights were quick, brutal, and fun to read. I am beyond ecstatic that so much of the potential I saw in the author as a freelance editor was more fully realized in this novel. If you were just meh about Arena, pick up Gauntlet, and I promise you that you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you like YA novels, especially YA sci-fi, you should pick up this series. If you don’t like YA novels or don’t like books with video game related plots this might not be the book for you.