A Virtual Underdog Story: Arena by Holly Jennings

When I was a wee tiny child, about halfway through primary school, it seemed that everywhere I turned there were novels about the plucky children of the local soccer team (or sometimes the local field hockey team), who had to overcome various trials and tribulations to compete in—and win—the Fancy Championships, while the players learned valuable life lessons about co-operation and teamwork and sportspersonship.

I mention this because Arena, Holly Jennings’ debut novel, reminds me an awful lot of those long-ago sporting novels, albeit written for an older audience and featuring a rather different sort of sport. This the eSport sporting novel, set in a future where virtual reality has taken off to the point where professional gamers are athletes and in professional tournaments the players feel the effects of the game as though it were real—though when they die in the game, they wake up instead.

Kali Ling* competes in what’s basically a team gladiatorial event. Five players face five other players, in a fight to the digital death. (The pain’s real. The death isn’t.) In the professional gaming league, the players are celebrities, and live celebrity lifestyles complete with drink and drugs. On the eve of Ling’s first major tournament, with her team shaken by an unexpected defeat, her teammate and lover dies of a drug overdose on the same night she’s handed the team captaincy. Ling’s just become the first female captain in tournament history, but with a team off balance, a new—and very handsome—team member who’s keeping secrets and seems to be determined to be as awkward as possible, incredible pressure to succeed from the team sponsors and owners, and her own difficulties dealing with her lover’s death and her new responsibilities, it looks rather like Ling’s first tournament might be her last.

But she’s not willing to go down without a fight.

Between training montages, the fairly predictable storyline about background corruption in the games, the generally predictable narrative arc of the sports competition novel (will the underdogs make it all the way to the top?) and the entirely predictable nature of the romantic arc between Ling and her new teammate, Arena feels like a fairly lightweight novel. It’s readable, but the most substantial element in it is Ling’s struggle with both grief and addiction, and her difficulty coming to grips with the “real” world as opposed to the virtual one. And despite a handful of scenes with a therapist and Ling’s eventual realisation that she does have a problem, it seems to me that this is treated far too lightly. Ling’s recovery feels more easy and narratively convenient than real: it’s a shallow treatment of addiction, rather than a well-thought and well-rounded interrogation.

In many ways, “shallow” is a description that applies to Arena as a whole. Fun, yes, readable, definitely, but there’s not an awful lot of there there. I hoped for a little bit more. Maybe next time?

*I find it a little difficult to take seriously a character who shares a name with a goddess. Unfortunately.

Arena is available April 5th from Ace Books.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. She has recently completed a doctoral dissertation in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter.


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