If anyone tells you that books about video games can’t be considered good literature, hand them Holly Jennings’ Arena, a fast-paced near future sci-fi debut that hangs weighty themes of addiction and self identity on the sturdy framework of a Hunger Games-like tournament, then spackles on a touch of romance and enough classic video game references to make controller jockeys feel at home.
Forget soccer and golf. In the future, the best sports are virtual, and they almost always involve warriors lopping off body parts with swords. The virtual combatants feel the pain of these injuries—it’s a bloodsport, yes, even if the blood is digital. Managing (and profiting from) these VR tournaments is the massive entity known as the Virtual Gaming League. VGL players train like celebrity athletes—success requires a lot more stamina that the ability to stay up late, wield a controller, and mainline Cheetos—and carefully nurture their fighting personas to earn sponsorships and gain fan approval. Your life is on display when you’re in the league, and for team captain Kali Ling, the first female to rise to that lofty level in tournament history, that’s starting to become an issue.
One of Kali’s teammates overdoses on a reality warping drug known as HP, triggering an avalanche of introspection for the young fighter, forcing her to evaluate her place in the corrupt, commercial world of virtual death match tournaments as she questions whether spending so much of her time focusing on virtual reality has begun to erode her sense of self.
Arena is easy to fall for. It’s a deceptively light read, engaging in only the essentials of world-building while keeping the story moving with healthy injections of action and romance, all the while delivering quick, satirical jabs at our present-day obsession with world class athletes-as-celebrities. Kali is a compelling, conflicted protagonist, and her latent interest in Taoism adds an additional layer of philosophical heft to a swift-moving thriller plot, which charges forward with virtual death matches, wild afterparties, and fight scenes worth their weight in pixels. Her problems stem from the fact that she can’t separate virtual reality from the garden variety kind, and Jennings draws parallels between how her emotional responses in one realm are governed by her experiences in the other.
Kali’s existence isn’t all bleak—occasionally she gets to step outside the ring and engage in a little romance. In its saucier moments, the books captures the awkward fumblings of a character who operates most confidently in a virtual world. Though she’s barely in her 20s, Kali’s affairs recall teenagers canoodling under the bleachers after cheerleading practice. If you’ve outgrown this sort of thing in real life, almost enough to make you hide your eyes in self-defense—some pains are felt more acutely than vivid descriptions of bloody digital combat.
Racing from one virtual battle field to another with the compulsive energy of the medium in which it is set, Arena is a non-stop, action-packed spectacle from the first page to the last, and a worthy addition to a recent gamers’ lit renaissance (it will fit nicely on the shelf next to that well-loved copy of Ready Player One) And major points for that Dr. Mario reference.