September 3, 2017

When video games meet Spartacus | Arena by Holly Jennings

Arena (Arena, #1)By Holly Jennings
Arena #1
Published on April 5, 2016
336 Pages
Science Fiction, New Adult, Diverse

This book was provided to me by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I swear on my bookshelf that this has not affected my opinion of the book.

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.

I have never really been a video game aficionado. I was always in last place in Mario Kart and the first to die in Call of Duty. But, sucking at video games does not mean that I don't like to play them, or even read about them. One of my favorite books a couple of years ago was Ready Player One by Ernest Cline with its homage to classic video games in a world of extravagant virtual reality. Arena has much of the same premise, but not even close to the same amazing execution. 

My biggest deterrent from the story was the main character's point of view. Kali's narration was all over the place, like a stream of consciousness style. This is more personal preference than anything, but I don't like the stream of consciousness writing style. I have enough wayward thoughts crowding my own head, so I don't need another voice babbling all up in my consciousness. All I can say is that I hope my mental voice is not nearly as annoying as Kali's mental voice. There were exclamations and rhetorical questions all over the place, which are fine when used with restraint. But Kali is not the restraint kind of girl. Even toward the end of the novel after all of her character development and supposed "chilling out", her voice was still too much for me to handle. She might have been a warrior in the virtual area, but in the arena of my mind, her useless mental rambling and contradictions just made her an annoyance.

Unfortunately, Kali's character was not flattered by the plot. The story followed a pattern without any surprises. In a way, it was just another underdog story that centered around a big "game" that they inevitably won. The plot did not offer a ton of surprise. After the first ten pages of the novel, I knew exactly how the last ten pages would go.

Even though the characters and plot left something to be desired (expect in the case of Rooke) I did love the setting and how the whole idea of this technology-centric future worked. The novel is centered on the ESPN of the future, which just happens to focus on virtual gaming instead of real sports. One of the most popular games is known as RAGE, where you basically get to play as Spartacus in game of "capture the flag" but with copious amounts of blood, flesh, and decapitated limbs. Anyway, the history of the world, which in a paradoxical way is our present now, was reflected upon in a unique way. The timeline of how video games and its gamers evolved was laid out in rich and interesting detail. Plus, there were an abundance of references to modern gaming systems that I knew and loved as a child (and yeah, maybe now too).

Another success for the story was the incorporation of diversity. Many groups and different kinds of people were highlighted throughout the book. For example, a lot of Kali's character development is based on Chinese philosophy, as a nod to her Chinese American heritage. The inclusion of Taoism and its basic ideas is like nothing I have ever read, and certainly not YA/NA novels. The exploration of Taoism went beyond the fact that "mediation is great", which is all I had pretty much seen in media before reading Arena. Instead of focusing on stereotypes, Taoism was depicted as a philosophy full of depth and balance. Even though I know that the novel only hit the surface of a very important and widespread philosophy, I did finish the book with more respect for Chinese Americans and their struggles. 

The characters, and not just Kali, really dove into what it means to have a team with different backgrounds, personalities, and religions. The novel certainly did not shy away from directly addressing the hard topics, especially drugs, addiction, death, sexism, racism, and homophobia. That being said, I will say that there are a few trigger warnings: drug use, addiction, overdose, and death. 

If you like stream of consciousness narration, the futuristic idea of full immersion gaming, and an emphasis on diversity and tough topics that most YA/NA novels tend to gloss over, then I would recommend Arena. If you are easily annoyed by an overbearing narration or a plot which doesn't offer any surprises, then I would skip on Arena.

Do you like the stream of consciousness style of narration? If so, do you have any recommendations that might change my mind? Have you ever read that incorporated the ideas of Taoism and Chinese philosophy? If so, I need more recommendations! Would you ever want to be in a fully immersive virtual reality video game?

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