Holly Jennings first novel, Arena, is a bit of a dystopian look at the potential future of gaming. Kali Ling is one of the best players in RAGE, the tournament that hosts a full on VR game of capture the flag. There are a few catches with VR in 2054 though. Your avatar in the game is yourself. Anything you can do in the real world, your avatar can do in the VR world, and vise versa. Your avatar is only as good as your real world self.
When one of Kali's teammates dies from a drug overdose, something that's much more common in the VR gaming world than any of the sponsors will admit, it's up to Kali to step up and take the position of team leaser. Not only is she the first woman leader in RAGE, she's now responsible for pulling together her team, complete with the new guy, and in the middle of one of the biggest tournaments on the US circuit as well. Will Kali be able to step up to the plate, or are her addictions going to lead her on a downward spiral?
Arena is geared to a YA audience, but there are a couple themes that may not be particularly appropriate for youth. Drug addiction, violence (in game, not in the real world), implied sex (between consenting adults), and the subplots (which become major plot points) of manipulation by corporations. There are also some points that could be an awesome jumping off point for youth and adults to talk about. There are some veiled references to GamerGate, to media manipulation, to the effects that media corporations have on information that we receive, to sexism/racism in the gaming world, and to addiction. I think that these could lead to some great conversations, and possible "teaching moments".
Would I recommend Arena? Yes, I certainly would. My friends who are gamers would like it, my friends who have teens would enjoy it (especially because they could read it with their teens), I think it could be interesting for a book club to read in order to discuss the themes that are affecting women and minorities in gaming currently. I give it four stars because it's well written, fast paced, and fun, but the characters are a little flat, there isn't too terribly much character development, and beyond Kali & Rooke, the supporting characters could be switched out for anyone. All in all though, it was good, and I'm looking forward to what Mx. Jennings has in store for us next.
I did receive an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I really enjoyed the book, it's pretty obvious that Mx. Jennings is a gamer. They also assume that you have at least some knowledge of gaming, both of current VR tech and of some of the old school console games.