In the year 2054, virtual gaming has become a major sport with a huge following, and the RAGE tournaments are the ultimate competition, a virtual fight to the death between two five-person teams. The death matches take place in a simple virtual world: a field of tall wheatgrass and two stone towers, one tower assigned to each team. The rules are simple ― kill everyone (in a virtual kind of way) on the opposing team ― but real-world strength and skills translate directly to this virtual world, so rigorous physical training and well-developed martial arts skills in real life are critical.
Kali Ling is a member of Team Defiance, which is favored in the main tournament. But then things quickly start to go wrong for Kali and Defiance, following the rule of bad things coming in threes: First, a stunning loss in the final game of the pre-season to Team InvictUS sends Defiance to the loser’s bracket of the tournament, where a single loss will end their chances. Second, just after the team’s owner names Kali the captain of the team, Kali’s teammate and friend-with-benefits Nathan dies of a drug overdose in her bed, necessitating a quick replacement ― and the new team member, James Rooke, is surly and unfriendly to Kali. And finally, as Kali stresses over the cohesiveness of her team and getting trained for the tournament, and at the same time carries on with partying and clubbing at night, as the team’s owner demands for publicity’s sake, she begins to realize that she has a physical and emotional addiction to the readily-available drugs and constant plugging into the virtual world.
HP, the latest designer drug, is a favorite of gamers: it enhances all of your senses, basically making real life feel more colorful and exciting … more like virtual reality. The gaming league’s owners and sponsors are also part of the problem, as they encourage and even insist on the gamers’ public partying, exacerbating the reckless behavior and personal problems of the gamers. At the same time, the owners try to whitewash any problems (like Nathan’s death from an overdose) and hide them from the public’s eyes. Luckily for Kali and readers who love hot romance, the handsome Rooke begins to unbend enough to help Kali deal with her problems. With the assistance of the Tao Te Ching, the “Taoist bible,” as Kali calls it, Rooke is instrumental in bringing Kali back to good health and putting her back into touch with the Chinese half of her heritage.
While Arena takes place during the biggest gaming event of the year, the focus of Holly Jennings’ novel is not so much on the game itself, but on the lives of the players, especially Kali, as she attempts to come to grips with her own personal problems, the problems with the gaming culture, and her growing attraction to Rooke. The virtual game itself takes a secondary role to the addiction theme and the romance subplot. In fact, the virtual matches themselves are rather colorless: the same two stone towers and field of wheat are the virtual setting for every match, which seems highly unlikely for a virtual world. For better or worse, this puts the focus on the physical battles and strategy of the teams, but I never found it particularly engaging. It’s also odd that in a competition where the gamers’ physical training is so vital, the team owner and sponsors insist on their public partying every night, even at the expense of their training and mental health.
Arena’s treatment of the troubling problem of addiction lacks depth and realism. While lip service is given to principles of Taoism and therapy, really it seems to just be lots of training and romancing with Rooke that gets Kali through her withdrawal period and quickly weans her away from her addictive behaviors.
This is definitely an adult novel, with R-rated language, sex and violence, but the writing style is superficial, more like I would expect from a young adult novel. For example, Kali’s first impressions on seeing Rooke are worthy of a romance novel:
My mouth dropped open, and my swirling stomach became an inferno, spreading heat … everywhere else. His chiseled cheekbones and hard jaw looked as if the Romans themselves had carved him out of stone. But wait, hello, a statue didn’t boast tanned skin or piercing, dark eyes. Along with his six-foot frame and perfect build, give him a couple of scars, and he’d be a gladiator in true form.
This shallow type of language and viewpoint, and the predictable relationship between Kali and Rooke, are symptomatic of the book as a whole. It just isn’t particularly deep or insightful and, despite the action scenes and romance, I found myself getting bored and skimming through much of the second half. It’s a lightweight novel that never really engaged my interest.