Book Review: Arena by Holly Jennings

by - 6:48:00 PM

Title: Arena
Author: Holly Jennings
Pages: 335
Genre: YA Science Fiction
Release Date: 05 April 2016

From Goodreads: "Every week, Kali Ling fights to the death on national TV. She's died hundreds of times. And it never gets easier...

The RAGE tournaments the Virtual Gaming League's elite competition where the best gamers in the world compete in a fight to the digital death. Every kill is broadcast to millions. Every player leads a life of ultimate fame, responsible only for entertaining the masses. And though their weapons and armor are digital, the pain is real. Chosen to be the first female captain in RAGE tournament history, Kali Ling is at the top of the world until one of her teammates overdoses. Now she's stuck trying to work with a hostile new teammate who's far more distracting than he should be. Between internal tensions and external pressures, Kali is on the brink of breaking. To change her life, she'll need to change the game. And the only way to revolutionize an industry as shadowy as the VGL is to fight from the inside."

Thank you to NetGalley, Holly Jennings, and Berkley Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for review!

Where has this book been all my life?! Seriously, I couldn't have asked for a better book to read. As a female gamer and reader, this book spoke to me on a personal level and I absolutely loved it. It covered so many issues in the gaming world of 2054 that I'm sure are 100% relevant to the world of gaming today, and I appreciated that it was so raw and honest. To put it simply, Arena is a book that you don't want to miss, whether you are a gamer or a reader.

Kali Ling is used to dying, she does it every week on national TV, but it never gets easier. The lifestyle of a gamer is fast and dangerous, both in reality and the virtual world. When Kali is chosen to be the first female captain in RAGE tournament history, she feels on top of the world. That is, until one of her teammates overdoses on drugs and dies. His death is covered up and he's replaced with a cold, hostile new gamer. Now, Kali has to juggle the pressure of being a female gamer and captain in the Virtual Gaming League, and try to cope with the death of her teammate, while trying to guide her team to win the championship. It's almost too much for Kali, and it pushes her to the breaking point. In order to change her life, she has to change the rules of the game the only way she knows how- from the inside.

I cannot say enough good things about this book. Having the opportunity to read something that appeals to me on both my gamer side and my reader/writer side was such an incredible experience. I loved the world building that went into this story, of both the real world and the virtual world. This book is set in 2054, and virtual reality gaming is the most popular form of gaming, with consoles that we know and love today being called "ancient." The idea that virtual reality gaming has become such a huge thing was so cool to picture. With esports becoming bigger and bigger each year, the thought that the professional gaming world could evolve to virtual reality gaming tournaments is not such a crazy idea, and it was such a treat to be able to read about a world where this has happened. Kali participates in the RAGE tournament, which is a gladiator style death match where teams fight to capture each others towers and take out the enemy team. It's bloody, brutal, and painful for the players. Of course, they don't actually die outside of the game, but there are no safety filters and players can feel every punch, stab, and throat slice they experience in-game. If that's not motivation for staying alive, I don't know what is. This was just unlike anything I've ever read and it was such a great experience from start to finish!

I feel that the characters in this book were a huge part in making this book a success. Yes, the story line and writing are amazing and I will definitely be addressing those later on, but the characters were just so well-written and made the story absolutely wonderful. What I loved most was that while the main character, Kali, was portrayed as a super strong character, she also had plenty of flaws. Basically, she wasn't perfect. There's a huge problem with MC's that are just too perfect and unflawed, or simply don't have their flaws acknowledged at all throughout the book. Kali was really well-balanced, with flaws and imperfections as well as traits that made her a smart, tough character. Not only does she have to deal with being a Chinese-American female team captain (which she gets a lot of crap about almost constantly), she also ends up addicted to sleeping pills, a gamer drug called HP, and drinking. When a teammate dies of a drug overdose while sleeping next to her, Kali becomes unable to sleep and begins taking sleeping pills. Because her team is expected to be seen out at clubs every night, she mixes the sleeping pills with alcohol and HP and her life begins to spiral out of control. But what I really appreciated was that Kali realized she had a problem, and reached out for help. She didn't want to stay on the path that she was on and I was so happy to see that she wanted to change for the better and basically save herself. Not only does she dig herself out of the hole, she also makes the decision to try and make the sport better for players. She realizes the poor treatment of the VGL players and decides to try and change things herself. Kali is just an all-around wonderful character and I really enjoyed following her journey.

The other characters, Kali's teammates, were also very well-written. I thought it was great to see such diversity in the characters, with representation for the LGBTQ community, a person of color, a Chinese-American character, and even a Canadian character! Each of the characters were so unique and it was very easy to tell the difference between them very early on, simply because they stood out so well. Lily was the small but mighty, pigtail wearing, axe-wielding ninja, Hannah was Lily's girlfriend and felt like the most level-headed one of the team, Derek was very hot-headed and butt heads with Nathan almost constantly and was really into the party scene, Nathan was basically a drug addict and not a very good influence on the team, and Rooke was a mysterious, strong, and essentially a giant teddy bear. Outside of Nathan, I really liked all of the characters for all of their own reasons and their own unique personalities. Nathan himself was not a very good character, not writing-wise but personality-wise, but the way that the team came together to honor his memory was a really big part of the book that I enjoyed. They wanted the truth out there in the world about the VGL and how gamers get addicted to drugs and die much more often than the news reported, and Kali especially refused to let anything stop her from accomplishing that goal. I just loved the teamwork they showed, in and out of the game.

The plot was incredible, and my favorite part was basically watching Kali's fall into the dangerous drug and alcohol lifestyle of virtual gamers and her rise above it and her determination to change the league for the better. Reading about the team performing incredibly well but not being very close at the beginning, to them practicing and learning together and finally becoming friends at the end was a great part of the book. The character development from start to finish was so well-written and having such good characters added so much to the already fantastic plot. Between Kali's struggle with her addiction, the RAGE tournament happening throughout the book, and her decision to try and expose the truth behind the VGL and drug related deaths, Arena was filled with almost constant action and intricate details that all combined to make an amazing book. The writing was nothing short of descriptive and you could really picture yourself in Kali's world, both real and virtual. I could see why Kali was addicted to the virtual world from the way that it was described and it was incredible how much detail was put into making the virtual world better than the real world. Holly Jennings writing was very enjoyable to read and her world building was unlike any that I've read before.

Arena is a book that shouldn't be missed. It's perfect for anyone looking for a new and exciting read that is filled with action, amazing character development, and writing so beautiful, you'll find yourself lost in it. Be sure to pick up Arena by Holly Jennings and prepare for one wild ride!

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