Release date: April 5th 2016
Publisher: Penguin Random House
*Received finished copy from publisher in exchange for an honest review.
I've been wanting to read more sci-fi based novels lately, and Arena has satisfied that craving to an extent. I found the story quite interesting and unique. I loved the world building and the concept of skillful gamers in this virtual reality setting where they are able to compete as teams and fight for victory in battle-to-the-end tournaments. However, I feel I have to caution readers who can't stomach fighting scenes that are like a blood fest (severed heads and all). If you aren't a fan of such themes then this may be tough for you. But also keep in mind that outside of the arena, gamers deal with "real" issues brought on by going virtual so often, succumbing to the darker side of something that's supposed to be "fun".
Kali Ling is this strong yet imperfect character. In the opening chapter, she falls to a new and what appears to be an unstoppable team in the arena. Kali's team loses their first fight and it seems everything is going downhill after that because they end up losing a team member as well. But before this happens, she receives an incredible opportunity: to be the first ever female to be captain of a team. Following the death of Nathan, it's on Kali to keep the team straight and in perfect condition in order to fight their way to the top of the RAGE tournaments. But the addition of a new team member makes it challenging, especially when he's so closed off to her. To make matters worse, Kali begins to experience the difficulties of what many gamers go through: an addiction to the arena. She's losing sight of what is real and becomes unable to balance the two worlds.
Honestly, going into this story, I had the expectation it would be mostly about fighting and how advanced the world had gotten in regards to more interactive video gaming, with a lot of cool sci-fi terminology along the way. I had no idea there would be other aspects emphasizing on the far less desirable side of the arena. How it affects the mind and can leave gamers mentally twisted. And I liked that the author went in this direction because it gave me two sides. Yes, the arena is entertaining. After all, it's a new and incredible way of playing video games. I mean you literally train for this and actually put yourself into this world. It's certainly cool. But the effects of the virtual gaming league are pretty scary, and after losing a teammate, I never thought Kali would end up dealing with it too. Many times I wanted to shake her and tell her to get herself together. But like I said before, her character is strong, and with the help of a certain person and her renewed faith in Taoist philosophy, was able to recapture her hold on life and get her mind right and back into it. Still, even after she starts to snap back, I couldn't help but wonder how it's such a shame that even with all the advances made by this time, some things hadn't changed, in particularly, drug abuse.
In regards to the other characters, I liked the team members and the inclusion of diversity in the book. Aside from Hannah, Lily and Derek didn't really stand out to me in such a huge way. But then again, the parts that mainly held my interest are the battle scenes in the arena (cause I love fast-paced action) and the scenes in reality where Kali, and everyone else, are portrayed as individuals and not just as warriors. They're all still young adults dealing with real issues.
Overall, great story with a fantastic premise. Loved the ending too, not just the final battle in the championship but also how much Kali has evolved since the start. Her growth shines through in the last chapter and now I'm looking forward to her next step and more of the arena.