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I Belong

Review: Arena by Holly Jennings

ArenaTitle: Arena

Author: Holly Jennings

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: N/A

Publication Date: April 5, 2016

Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages

ISBN-10: 1101988762 (Ace/Penguin)

ISBN-13: 978-1101988763 (Ace/Penguin)

Reviewed by: Kristie


A fast-paced and gripping near-future science fiction debut about the gritty world of competitive gaming…
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 no-holds-barred fight to the digital death. Every bloody kill is broadcast to millions. Every player is a modern gladiator—leading 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 must confront the truth about the tournament. Because it is much more than a game—and even in the real world, not everything is as it seems.

The VGL hides dark secrets. And the only way to change the rules is to fight from the inside…

Quick & Dirty: Virtual gaming as a professional sport set the intensity and action of this novel but I really struggled with the main character at first.

Opening Sentence: This wouldn’t be the first time I died.

Excerpt: Yes

The Review:

Arena is set in the year 2054. Virtual gaming is now a competitive, professional sport as popular as the Super Bowl. I really enjoyed the opening to this novel, it reminded me a bit of Sword Art Online until the consequences of this world is fully unveiled. Then I had a really hard time with Kali, the main protagonist, as she tries to survive the enticing grips of the virtual world. Eventually, Kali becomes a better person but the journey to get there takes a while.

Virtual gaming has a dark side. It isn’t all fun and gaming. In order to be a part of the professional world, gamers must be in peak physical condition. They have to mentally and physically be able to perform the fight moves in the real world in order for it to transition to the virtual. If you can’t fly in real life then you definitely can’t fly in the virtual. Also, sensations are heightened, colors are more vibrant, smells are more pungent and pain is very real. When you die in the virtual you will feel every repercussion until you wake back up in the real world once again whole. Gamers are just about as fake as the games they are playing. Each team member plays a part for the media and for sponsors who will pull their money as soon as someone does something that they don’t like.

I drove my fingers through his hair, and his tongue assaulted mine. I tasted everything he’d done that night, a bittersweet mix of soda, vodka, and traces of HP.

HP. Nathan wasn’t the only one wishing he was still in the virtual.

I closed my eyes and envisioned the tower, surrounded by stone and grass. The metal against my back turned to earth. Warmth spread through my body as the sunlight caressed my skin. The sweetest scent, like a thousand wildflowers, wafted against my nose, carried by the thick, mountain air. It filled my lungs and breezed across my face. Reality was the game. Plastic. Metal. People. All fake. The game was real—tangible, sweet and warm—and the only place I was alive and free.

Kali and Team Defiance are the number one team in the world until they are overwhelmingly defeated in the semifinal rounds. Then to make matters worse one of the team members dies from a drug overdose. As Team Defiance has now been moved to the losers’ bracket, they cannot lose any more matches if they have any hopes of making it to the Finals. Team Defiance undergo some major changes when Kali is named team captain (the first ever in the sport) and a new member joins the team.

He drove his sword through my chest and ripped it out again.

I dropped to my knees. My fingers went numb and ice-cold. Death was an animated thing, slithering up my arms and chest until it wrapped around my throat and crushed my last, gasping breath.

I woke with a jolt, slamming back to this world. Slick with sweat, trembling uncontrollably, I breathed through my hand and forced my stomach calm, thankful that the pod’s solid doors kept my reaction concealed from everyone else. I coughed and sputtered until tears stung my eyes and dribbled down my face. As my body slowly recovered, I started to laugh, and kept laughing until there were new tears in my eyes. Nothing like seeing your own insides to make you feel mortal.

Nothing like coming back to life to make you feel like a god.

Kali is not a redeemable character at the beginning of Arena. In fact, she’s kind of hard to read because you know she is throwing her life away and doesn’t care one bit. She’d rather be lost in the virtual than in the clinical, whitewashed real world. Just when I was about to give up on finding anything redeeming about Kali, she finally begins to understand how detrimental she’s been living her life. Kali with the help of Rooke, the new team member, begins to change her life around while also trying to be a better teammate, captain and person. Kali wants to put an end to the dark side of virtual gaming.

I left the doc’s office feeling stronger than I had in a long time. Each step that pounded into the hallway’s metal floor sent another shock wave of perseverance through my body. This wasn’t just about me or my career. The team was counting on me to lead them to the championship. That’s what mattered.

But the problem with living in a reality so plastic and fake and a virtual world so full of life, the lines between what matters and what doesn’t get blurry.


Overall, Arena has quite a bit of action and some intense moments. I still felt it was slow going for me, it may not be that way for others but I did struggle with Kali’s struggle. I just wanted it to get over with so I could see how the Final fight would go. I was not disappointed in the ending at all, Arena has a wonderful, intense ending. The thing that I did like about Arena was how it was a different read for me. I haven’t really read anything set with virtual gaming like this. If you want to read something a bit different, try Arena. If not, then I would suggest you pass on it.

Notable Scene:

“And when you do a hit of HP at the clubs, is that for the team, too?”

I ground my teeth together. Whatever I chose to do at the clubs was none of his fucking business.

“You can’t keep going like this,” he stressed. The muscles in his neck went tight. “You could die, Kali. Don’t you see that?”

Pffft. I waved him off. “We don’t die, you idiot. We never die. We just wake up. You know why the rest of us do this? Why we drink and party and get so high we can’t remember our own names? It’s just to pass the time until we can go back to what’s real.”

He took a step back, and the color drained from his face. “What did you just say?”

“Nothing. I don’t know.”

He took my head in his hands and forced my eyes up. “Look at me. What do you see?”

“An asshole.” I slapped his hands, but his grip only tightened on my jaw.

“How many times have you died?”


“How many times?”

“Thirty, maybe. Forty. I don’t know.”

“Dying here isn’t like the games,” he said. “This is reality.”


FTC Advisory: Ace/Penguin provided me with a copy of Arena. No goody bags, sponsorships, “material connections,” or bribes were exchanged for my review.


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