Arena, by Karen Hancock

arena-by-karen-hancock coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Bethany House Publishers
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by Lynn Nicole Louis

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Although Arena uses most of the traditional trappings of science fiction (aliens, energy fields, particle weapons, teleportation devices, etc.) this story is really fantasy. Furthermore, it belongs to the sub-genre that (at the risk of putting a target on my forehead) I’m going to refer to as Christian Fantasy (although they call it science fiction allegory in the blurbs on the back). In Arena, the author expresses Christian ideals and the characters (the good ones anyway) adhere to Christian values and principles to accomplish their goals. Woe betide those characters that don’t.

Most speculative fiction fans are familiar with the amazing success of the Left Behind books. I’ve never read any of them, but I know the premise: God has taken away all the believers and left Earth to Satan and everyone else. The books follow the adventures of those that were “Left Behind”. The novels are deeper than that, I’m sure, but that’s the limit of my knowledge. The series (which I think is over ten books now) has sold millions of copies. Millions.

Do you think that’s a statistic publishing houses missed? Me either.

Are the numerous Christian-based fantasy and science fiction books showing up on the shelves a fan-driven revitalization of a sub-genre that’s been out there all along? Or an attempt on the part of publishers to cash in on what appears to be an untapped and eager market?

The set-up: Callie is a doormat. Browbeaten by her mother and very successful sister, working in a low paying monotonous job, she doesn’t have much going on and, worse yet, no prospects that things will get better. Enter her friend Meg, who convinces Callie to go with her to volunteer for a medical experiment to earn some extra cash and because the guy she met who invited her to participate is so cute. This experiment is different though, and before you can say Hail Mary, Callie finds herself alone and wandering in an alien world called Arena.

The goal of those put into the Arena is to find the way out. If they can do so, then they will find that their lives have changed for the better. But getting out is hard. Callie was given some clues by the beings that put her there, but conflicting information from the other people and beings that she meets in the Arena cause her to doubt their validity. There seems to be a flip side to every story, and Callie wallows in the middle because so many people give her such different advice. As a new arrival, she’s not sure who to believe or what to do.

Despite being a ‘Christian’ work, Ms. Hancock isn’t afraid to let bad things happen. There’s violence aplenty, and gorily described too. Her characters are flawed. They make mistakes and bad decisions and end up in bad situations usually made worse by their own actions. It’s this human element that breathes life into the book.

Overall, I thought Arena was quite good. The various characters are well done, the world is well realized and the writing polished enough so that it didn’t get in the way of the story (I believe highest ideal good writing should aspire to is to not be noticed).

Technically, the author did a good job. The only blip I had was at the beginning of the last section, where she skips over a large segment of time and the adventures contained within. It was jarring because of the attention the author had paid to all Callie’s experiences beforehand. Minor overall, but still something that jumped out at me.

Now the soapbox. Be warned….

Books are more than the sum of their words. Authors write because they have something to say, a message they want to get across. Even those who protest “I’m just telling a story” still infuse their values and beliefs in their work, whether intentional or not. If I didn’t know the book was Christian allegory (and it makes a point to tell you, both in the blurbs on the back and in the authors acknowledgements) I might not be so… irritated about some aspects of the message the author is communicating.

To me, there’s a big difference between religion and spirituality. Religions for the most part seem to be sets of rules about how you’re supposed to behave and worship. I’m not so sure there’s only one way to worship, which is in direct opposition to the tenants of most religions. I believe good things beget good things, and kindness begets kindness. I don’t need the Bible or the Koran or any other religious text to tell me to be nice to people, to say please and thank you, to be true to myself and those I love, to not lie cheat or steal or judge others. Yet a Christian would tell me that doing all that isn’t enough. I have to accept Jesus as my savior and God as the almighty, or it’s all for naught. That’s the strongest message at the heart of Arena and I have a problem with it.

The king of the good aliens is the one who designed the Arena and places the challenges before the participants. Callie and the others are told that they must place their faith in him, trust him and put themselves completely in his hands or they will fail. They must forge a link with him, and if they do so they will be provided for and taken care of (which I took to mean that all those who don’t won’t be provided for or taken care of). There are bad aliens as well. Throughout the book, they attempt to deceive Callie and others, to undo their faith and turn them from the path that will ultimately lead them out.

The arena is set up in three stages. One progresses from the first stage to the second by passing through a gate that alters their molecular structure. One can get to the second stage without passing through the gate, but by so doing that individual is not ‘changed’ and will be destroyed when he or she attempts to pass through the final doorway and return back to earth. No second chances either. Yet all one has to do to find a passage to the gate between the first and second stage is ask (a simple thing which no one in the first stage can seem to figure out) and use the key they were given when they first were put into the Arena.

To me, that means that no matter what you do or how you behave, if you don’t first accept God and Jesus by asking them into your life, you’ll never win through to Heaven. I’ve known plenty of Christians. They can be as selfish, as petty and greedy and spiteful and proud as anyone. One of my major irritations is the constant attitude of you’re-going-to-hell-and-I’m-not-because-I-believe-and-am-saved. Seems like hubris to me.

Now I’m ranting.

To sum it up: Proselytizing aside, this is a fairly enjoyable novel; well written, plenty of action, some interesting characters and situations. Parts of its message are meaningful — take control of your life, trust your feelings and those you care for, it’s up to you to make changes, God helps those who help themselves. If you like a good science fiction/fantasy hybrid, this one will do despite its thinly veiled Christian morality sermonizing.

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