I was a big, big fan of Jennings’ debut, Arena. Gauntlet is a helluva ride too. Kali Ling, the Warrior, is back to stab people repeatedly in virtual reality melee. And this time she’s doing it as team owner and in an all-star tournament.
The star of the show is again Kali Ling, and the story is told entirely from her perspective. Arena ended not just with her team winning the RAGE tournament, but with Kali blowing the door open on drug use in professional gaming and becoming the youngest team owner in Virtual Gaming League history.
As the story opens, all eyes are on a mysterious Los Angeles mansion. Gaming teams have been seen entering for weeks. Kali suspects drugs, but when her team’s invitation comes, she discovers a plutocrat who has new and improved virtual reality pods. He wants to unveil them at an all-star tournament, and Kali’s team is invited. They’re in the big leagues now.
As in Arena, the 5-person teams are essentially playing a virtual reality version of capture the flag. An ultra-advanced virtual reality where “your physical self [is] your avatar. The faster, stronger, or more agile you [are] in real life transferred into the game.” Which means getting stabbed with a sword feels like getting stabbed with a sword. It’s a neat trick to give a scifi heroine an excuse to repeatedly go toe-to-toe with opponents, sword in hand. Now, though, the rules change with each match. Kali and her team never know what they will face each time they get into the pods. And, worse, the pods are learning, accessing their thoughts to learn what they fear.
Gauntlet is set in the near future, but Jennings keeps a light touch for the science fiction outside of gaming. E.g., construction is now largely by drone. There are AI programs that engage in identity theft. The family of one of the players made their fortune mining water from asteroids (but for drinking water?). They’re nice touches, if not enough to satiate a hardcore science fiction fan.
Owning a team brings new challenges for Kali. For one, she’s an atrocious manager. She doesn’t even have an assistant to help manage her emails and calendar. She might be making millions as an employee but somehow that isn’t a justifiable expense. She seems to think P.R. requires just ignoring everything the media says. They’re supposedly elite athletes, but Kali sleeps little and makes up for it with lots of coffee (that, I suppose, is more Jennings fault than Kali’s). She takes a distinctly hands-off approach to sponsor management. “The agreement with them was for the RAGE tournaments, not the all-stars. I didn’t realize it mattered. I thought they were just our sponsors, period.” Of course they only complained after things soured weeks in, but that’s why you lock them in. A five (er, six) minute phone call to the lawyer could have answered Kali’s question, and set in motion a quick renegotiation.
Kali only starts to get a handle on things when she starts pulling her teammates in to help her shoulder the burden. This wound up being one of the highlights. After Arena was so Kali-and-Rook-centric, it was nice to see Kali interacting more with the rest of her team.
She needs the help. Kali made powerful enemies when she exposed the linkage between virtual reality and addiction (expressly compared to “the football-concussion controversy at the turn of the century”). It is obvious to the reader long before it is to Kali that her team is the target of a smear campaign (probably because she doesn’t have professional P.R. help). And there are worse things her enemies can do than smear her and her team.
We don’t see quite as much of him, but Rook is back. In the world of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, the men of Earth have all become feminized a couple centuries into the future, to his female lead’s disappointment. In The Forever War, the men a few decades into (their) future wear makeup. But I have a feeling manliness won’t go out of style. There is a reason that Jennings gives her love interest, Rooke, a style that is “subdued, masculine, and just a little old-fashioned.” In fact, if you want men still acting like men in modern speculative fiction? Your first place to look is a book written by a woman featuring a romance. Of course it will be from a feminine perspective. Query why that is common—and sells, though entirely ignored by the literati—while the same written from a masculine perspective is uncommon and actively denigrated.
I have only a few quibbles. Most of which are because this is essentially a sports book, and Jennings doesn’t know all that much about sports. Which leads to things like workouts designed “to match those of marathoners” that consist of squats, dead lifts, and 30- and 60-second sprints. Uh, ok. And the ending infuriated me, although it still works as a climax. Gauntlet may not be quite at the top of its game like Arena, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t a heck of a lot of fun.
“A Japanese dojo with a Chinese garden, where I’d practice my Korean martial art, in Los Angeles, California.”
4 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received a review copy through NetGalley.