Review – Arena by Holly Jennings

By: Holly Jennings
Release Date: April 5, 2016
Publisher: Ace
Series: Arena Book 1
Received From: Publisher
(All reviews are our own, honest opinions.)

Arena by Holly Jennings is set in the near future where e-sports are now dominated by fully immersive virtual reality games. The story is told from Kali’s point of view – a twenty year old half American half Chinese woman who is making history as the story unfolds as the first female team captain in the tournament bracket. Then her world starts to fall apart – her teammate dies of an overdose, she’s fighting an addiction herself, and corporate sponsors along with their team owner wants to sweep Nathan’s death under the rug. The story itself was decently plotted and well-paced with interesting fight scenes sprinkled throughout.

So what did I have issue with?

The fully immersive VR gaming. Especially as a gamer.

Fully immersive VR isn’t a new idea, but it’s just as intriguing now as ever, especially as VR systems are being systematically released for major consoles. However, the execution left me wondering if the author has ever actually played video games with any regularity.

I didn’t really understand why they had their own programmers. Programmers aren’t magicians, but I felt that the story treated them that way. They don’t just magic opponents and simulations out of thin air, and coding from scratch takes much longer than a couple of punches of a keyboard. Having some sort of advanced AI would have been more logical. Even more confusing was the complete and total lack of an in-game menu system which would have nearly erased the need for any programmers or AI at all. As a gamer, not having the option to choose your own maps, difficulty settings for opponents, and, especially, log out is both completely foreign and a complete turn off. It isn’t exactly like you can just alt-F4 out fully immersive VR.

Also, that is not tower defense. The game they are playing in the tournament is definitely a capture the flag style game. Traditionally, tower defense refers to a style of gaming where you or your team must defend your tower/location from wave upon wave of innumerable [insert your villain of choice here]. Capture the flag is a style of gaming when your team must capture the other teams location.

The characters were, by and large, very memorable. Kali has a strong voice, and becomes a rather strong character. Rooke was more interesting than I first assumed he would be as well. All of the more minor characters had personality and goals, two hosts for the tournament being among my favorites. That said, while memorable, many of the characters weren’t necessarily well fleshed out. Clarence falls into an evil villain archetype with no real motivation besides the book needing a villain. The romance between Kali and Rooke felt forced; I would have much rather Kali learned to trust him as a human being before a rushed, whirlwind romance which, despite what Kali says in the book, is really no deeper or different than her relationship with Nathan.

While the VR tech I found a bit of a stretch, and some of the characters poorly fleshed out, the book did have some good messages. Largely, though, Arena</em had wonderful ideas that were executed inexpertly. Hopefully, Gauntlet, the second book in the series, coming out in April of 2017, will be handled with a bit more finesse. If you are new to books in this vein, you might want to give this book a shot.

Read If:
you want a quick read, you like books set in the near future, you like books based around gaming

Don't Read If:
you've actually played a lot of video games, you like characters with lots of character development

About author

Kathleen Townsend

Kate writes things, reads things, and writes about things she reads. She’s had a few short stories published, and works as a freelance editor. Favorite genres include epic & high fantasy, science fiction, time travel stories, video game related tales, light novels, and manga.

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