Karen Hancock
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Buy *Arena* online Arena
Karen Hancock
Bethany House
400 pages
May 2002
rated 1 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Cruci-fiction really ought to come with a warning label. It really chaps my hide when Christian propaganda masquerades as fiction, and only when it’s too late do you realize what you’re in for. If I’d been able to see the actual book beforehand, I might have known (perhaps the most surreal blurb in the history of jacket copy: “If you liked Pilgrim’s Progress and "The Matrix," then you’ll love Arena”), but all I had to go on was a brief plot summary that failed to mention the religious angle. And by the time I figured out what I was reading, I was trapped in the Arena myself.

This could be the shortest review of my career, if I wanted, because I can tell you everything you need to know about this book in three words: Christian sci-fi romance. That ought to be enough to strike fear into the heart of any reader. But I think I’ve earned the right to blast it in greater detail, having slogged through nearly four hundred pages of the stuff.

Callie Hayes is dissatisfied with her life. She resents her domineering mother and sister, has few friends, and lacks the resources to pursue her true passion – art. To support herself, she’s a guinea pig for scientific studies and experiments at the university, earning thirty or fifty dollars at a time to fill out forms or push buttons. Callie and her friend Meg sign up for an experiment together, but it’s unlike anything they’ve done before: dropped separately into an alien environment called the Arena, they’re supposed to navigate to one of several gates, with the help of a thick but cryptic manual and a few supplies. The Arena is dangerous, filled with mutated humans corrupted by succumbing to the temptation of “fire curtains,” and creepy telepathic aliens called Tohvani who try to pysch out the humans with naysaying. Only by trusting in the protection and guidance of a mysterious superior being called Elhanu, and admitting their inability to get through the Arena on their own, can the humans hope to pass through the final Portal and earn their great reward.

Is it heavy-handed in here, or is it just the Arena?

It’s no surprise that the author admits to being inspired by watching her son playing Super Mario Brothers, because reading this book is like watching someone else play a video game. And if you’ve ever watched someone play a video game, you know exactly how boring that gets. The writing is typically awful: characters pause in the middle of the action to narrate their own spiritual struggles; whole scenes are compressed into bland, generically phrased summaries; the landscape is full of clumsy, obvious religious symbolism, as far as the eye can see. The world of the Arena is a weird mish-mash of pseudo-fantasy conventions (flowing tunics, energy portals) and modern conveniences; Hancock devotes a bewildering amount of time to lovingly describing meals, home furnishings, and appliances. And, as a bonus, each chapter sports a Bible quote at the beginning to set the mood.

Callie and her inevitably hunky love interest Pierce are interesting characters, at first, because they’re believably flawed. Callie’s life has pretty much stalled out; Pierce is broken by his suffering, and his courageous leadership flip-flops with paralyzing panic attacks. But as soon as they see the light, the characters become smug, insufferably tranquil Elhanu-groupies, prating on about “the link” with their deity and the necessity of accepting one’s total inability to navigate life successfully. To a humanist like me, this is anathema, and the struggle to love God is not a conflict that is compelling or relevant. Nor does it make for believable, fully-rounded characters – but then, I keep forgetting that that’s not the goal: this is proselytization, not literature.

In summing up the book, I thought that three words was the best I could do, but now I think I can get it down to two, although they’re not mine. In the words of a customer who submitted a review: “Heart Renching.” I couldn’t agree more.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Stephanie Perry, 2003.

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