No one cares about football in Arena. Rugby is long forgotten, Wimbledon a distant past, along with pretty much every other professional sport, and no one even remembers how to play baseball.
Nope, the competitive sport of choice in this futuristic world, built by author Holly Jennings, is virtual reality gaming; specifically the RAGE tournament, in which superstar gamers battle to kill one another in ever more violent ways. Kali Ling is the first girl ever to lead a RAGE team, and if her team comes out on top, they’ll be set for life, with all the cash and corporate sponsorships they could ever want or need.
But it won’t be easy. Plugging into the virtual world of RAGE has consequences for its players, and
when one of her teammates dies of a drug overdose, Kali realises how messed up the whole system is. Cue a daring rebellion.
There are lots of parallels with The Hunger Games to be drawn here; although Kali won’t actually die in the game, she’s still in danger, and image is everything, as her terrifying Simon Cowell-esque manager keeps telling her. She’s even pushed into a fake romance with one of her teammates to keep them in the headlines.
Luckily, Kali’s not just a Katniss Everdeen clone – she’s got her own voice, and her journey from drug-addicted party girl to empowered badass is inspiring.
Arena’s take on celebrity culture is sobering, too. The RAGE tournaments might not be real, but the way the gamers are treated is clearly a critique of the way young celebrities (actors, musicians, athletes) are forced into an image and lifestyle that seems aspirational even when it’s more genuinely destructive.
Towards the end, as Kali learns to value what’s really real, things do get a bit preachy, but ignore that and this is a compulsive and even, whisper it, uplifting read. You may not find anything entirely new within its pages, but you’ll enjoy yourself all the same.