A Writer Reads: “Arena Mode” Book Review

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October 11, 2013 by T. Gregory Argall

Recently, a friend of mine commented that her initial success as a writer was due, in part, to some advice she’d been given when she was first starting out. “Friends will always buy your book, so try to have lots of them.”

Blake Northcott knows that. Having spent a few years building an internet presence for herself through Facebook and Twitter, as well as her own website, she has developed quite a following. Admittedly, some of that following is due to the fact that Blake is a very attractive woman. The internet is just like that. But a majority of her following is there because she also happens to be intelligent, clever, witty and creative. Just to prove that point, she has written a few novels.

Publication of her most recent novel, a speculative story of the near future called Arena Mode, was funded through a KickStarter campaign. It turned out to be one of the most successful KickStarter campaigns ever, raising a ka-jillion times its original target amount in about three minutes. I may be exaggerating a bit, but the point is, she raised far more money than she was seeking and it all translated into book sales.

KickStarter campaigns are based on a reward system. Donate X amount of money and get this really cool thing in return. Donate X plus Y amount of money and get this really cool thing and this other really cool thing as well. The more an individual person donates, the more that person is rewarded with cool stuff.  A helluva a lot of individual people donated to Blake’s campaign, so she decided to make the really cool rewards even cooler.

She already had some significant and well-known comic book artists illustrating character profiles for the book. With the added influx of KickStarter cash she was able to add some more names to the list of participating artists, make some postcards and posters, and also develop a tabletop role playing game based on the novel, among other interesting and intriguing rewards. As the donations continued and the dollar amount rose higher and higher beyond the original target amount, the rewards increased as well, even for those who had already donated expecting smaller rewards.

Of course, all of that really means nothing if the novel itself lacks quality.

Well, let me tell you, there are no worries on that count. My signed copy of Arena Mode will have a place of honour on my book shelf, alongside the works of Robert J. Sawyer, Douglas Adams, Spider Robinson, and Neil Gaiman.

Arena Mode cover

Also, the cover is really cool.

Arena Mode tells the story of Matthew Moxon (“Mox” to his friends, all both of them) and his experiences as a participant in a live televised battle-to-the-death competition for superpowered people. The thing is, Mox doesn’t actually have any superpowers. In fact, he’s got— But, no, that would be telling.

A disclaimer: The human brain likes to assign comparative experiences to new things. “I’ve never seen that before but it’s like this other thing that I have seen.” Whether the comparisons are valid or not, it gives a sense of familiarity to combat the trepidation of encountering something unknown. We can’t help it. It’s just something that our brains do when they think they’re helping us.

On the surface, Arena Mode seems to draw inspiration from multi-player video games, as well as from the novel and film Battle Royale (which also partly inspired The Hunger Games). Neither of those things hold a lot of interest for me, so it was with some hesitation that I started reading Arena Mode. But dig a little deeper and many more diverse influences become apparent, from Escape From New York to The Wizard of Oz, from Willy Wonka to The Warriors, from The Running Man to Phenomenon. I may be imagining many of the influences that I thought I picked up on as I read the novel, but the point is, while there are arguably no new stories left in the world, if told the right way, a story can feel new and exciting. In the capable hands (and words) of Blake Northcott, Arena Mode becomes one of those stories. All the random elements that my brain associated elsewhere came together to form something unique and intriguing and kind of wonderful.

Arena Mode takes place in 2041 and the world that Blake Northcott has built is quite believably a 28 year extrapolation from today. With off-hand references to state of the world at the time, I could easily see how we’d get there from here. There was just enough detail to paint the background setting without droning on with so much dull information that the reader becomes bored and loses interest.

The story itself kept me interested, drawing me in from the start. Although it was told in first-person narration from Mox’s point of view, the tale is structured in such a way that there’s really no guarantee that he survives. I enjoyed every page of this book as the story flowed to in unexpected directions, leading me eagerly from one twist to the next. Ms. Northcott has indicated that a sequel (of sorts) is pending. I expect I’ll be among the first in line when it becomes available.

If my vaguely spoiler-free ramblings have piqued your interest, you can find Arena Mode at blakenorthcott.com. There’s other neat stuff there, too.



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