ARENA MODE by Blake Northcott

As I noted before, I first became aware of Blake Northcott after I backed the Kickstarter campaign for the sequel to this book. I thought it was an interesting concept so I pledged the tier that also got me a copy of this book, so I could read it first. Arena Mode takes place in the near future, the year 2041 to be exact. The basic premise is that in decades between then and now the world has gone to Hell in a handbasket, thanks in large part to the outrageous growth of income inequality, dividing the population into The Haves (the super-rich) and The Have-Nots (the dirt-poor) with the “Have-Somes” (just above dirt-poor, but far from being rich) being stuck in between.

Two other significant events have happened that have drastically altered society. First, at some point, sword fighting became one of (if not the) most popular sports in America. The fights are full-contact, meaning participants can and sometimes do die, and this is legal now (I think the implication is that the rising crime that the majority of the population, except the wealthy 1%, endure has increased their tolerance for violence as entertainment). And then, even more significantly, in recent years superhumans have slowly emerged. Random people started developing random superpowers, and the world (and the law) is still trying to figure out how to handle them. Cameron Frost is a former famous sword fighter, who retired after being crippled and is now a wealthy businessman who announces that he’ll be staging a televised tournament, similar to the old gladiator matches of ancient Rome, where 13 superhumans will fight to the death, with the winner being awarded ten billion dollars.

Our lead character is Matthew Moxon, known to everyone as “Mox” (Blake does seem to love giving her lead characters nicknames). Mox is a Have-Some, who ekes out a living as a gambler. This works for Mox as he happens to have a photographic memory, which enables him to engage in card-counting, among other tricks, but he has to be careful about how and when he uses his skills because of the heightened security most casinos now have for this sort of thing. So he only wins in small enough doses to get him through the day and tries his best to stay under the radar, including living off the grid. Mox’s only real friends are Gavin, who runs a comic-book store, and Gavin’s sister Peyton, who’s harbored a long-time crush on Mox, which he has rebuffed due to his friendship with Gavin. One day, after collapsing in Gavin’s store, Mox gets some bad news from his doctor. He has a massive brain tumor which will surely kill him within months. Mox’s only chance for survival is an expensive experimental type of surgery which he can’t even begin to afford. So Mox comes up with a solution, he’s going to enter the superhuman tournament. Of course, he’s not actually superhuman, so this seems like a suicide mission, but if he does nothing he’s going to die anyway, so why not take the chance? And so with Gavin and Peyton’s help, Mox learns how to fake having super-powers to qualify for the tournament and tries to plan how he is going to survive.

This book is written in the first-person point of view, with Mox as our narrator. This is an interesting choice that helps immediately differentiate this novel from Vs. Reality, which was written in third-person, although both novels deal with superhumans and their effect on society. Blake proves to be just as adept at this writing style and putting us, the readers, in Mox’s head also helps us relate to and identify with him, which is key as he is literally fighting for his survival. When Mox gets to the actual fights, the stakes feel all too real, and I found myself legitimately worried for his safety. Blake’s knack for descriptive narration comes in handy here, as you can visualize the action in your head as easily as if you were reading a graphic novel with pictures. There are characters with the traditional superhero powers, super-strength, super-speed, flight, etc., but Blake manages to come up with some creative new uses for them and, yes, there is there are some of the typical unexpected plot twists that Blake excels at including in her stories. Arena Mode is an energetic and inventive story that is the narrative equivalent to riding a roller coaster and will have the reader on the edge of their seat all the way to the explosive climax.

Chacebook rating: FIVE STARS

I’d recommend getting this now, not only because it’s a great book, but because it’s currently in development as a television series! So get in on the ground floor!



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