“Arena” is a futuristic dystopian story with some flavors of “Hunger Games” meets “Red Rising” but follows along a more traditional Roman gladiator structure—which shouldn’t be a surprise given the title and cover. The story follows Colston, the son of an abusive drunk and owner of an estate where murderers are sent to fight in gladiatorial combat, as he grows from a lonely 15 year old to the premier trainer of these fighting men. By befriending Cole, a giant of a man convicted of murder by trying to defend his slaughtered family, the two help each other survive in their respective worlds. When Colston falls for Anna, a debtor that his father purchased, he starts to plan for a future away from his father’s estate. Unfortunately, he never really gets to the point where he wants to better or change this dystopian society where those who fall into debt are sold like slaves, and those convicted of murder must entertain the masses in bloody combat, which you kind of expect from a dystopian story. Despite the feel of those other books present in “Arena”, Colston is only ever focused on him and his immediate circle, not changing an inhumane practice the way Anna encourages him, which never sat well with me. Now, some of these plot points are spread out between several books, but this is the omnibus with all three books rolled into one. I liked some of the books better than others, but as I received the whole collection, I’ll be rating it as the omnibus and not the individual stories.
The premise is an interesting one, and one I really enjoyed in series like “Red Rising”, where we have gone far enough into the future where we romanticize Roman society and its structure base once more. Unfortunately there isn’t a ton of world building done outside of Colston’s home estate, so you don’t see how the world is different or what kind of new technology there is. Outside of pulse rifles, holotablets, and virtual training spaces, everything still feels very primitive. There were times where they were using basins to wash their hands! I think if the futuristic element had been stripped away, this would have made an excellent historical fiction, as that’s where it felt the most real. Withrow shines when he’s showing the gladiatorial combat of the arena, and I wanted more of that throughout the omnibus.
The first book is pretty good in terms of action, we instantly hate Colston’s father who just beats his kid in a drunken rage all the time, and we want him and Cole to prevail against him. But the stakes are relatively low—the only goal is for Cole to survive against the reigning arena champion, and it’s up to Colston to make sure that happens. Don’t get me wrong, I like books where the stakes aren’t immediately to save the world, but it didn’t feel big enough either, there wasn’t enough tension, just an anger against Colston’s father.
The second book has even less combat and I felt that was a missed opportunity, as that middle book/section lagged a bit compared to the others. It’s a lot of plotting and scheming for an escape, and a race against the clock, but it’s also the book where I liked the main character least. Despite 10 years passing between the first section of the book and now, Colston never seems to mature and it’s his own arrogance and childish behavior that sparks an event that costs him everything. Additionally, this part of the book comes with a trigger warning for rape and suicide, or it should but those events are handled so superficially and without the emotional punch I wanted that it just flies by. The reader understands something weird is going on, but it’s not until the very end of that section when Colston figures it out, so it goes by quickly and isn’t given the attention such topics deserve when you 1. Want the reader to really feel the emotional impact and 2. To be handled with the care those topics need. So it’s not all that “bad”, the scenes aren’t graphic, but the topics are there.
But it’s the third and final section where “Arena” really shines. I really enjoyed the last book though I still would have liked a little more emotional growth from Colston. He’s depressed, sure, but you never see him start to handle those demons in a way that shows he’s growing, that he’s learning to forgive and live again. There’s a lot more combat in this section, which is what the author really excels at, but there’s also more mature language and more violence. Not that the other sections didn’t have that, but the final section does dial it up a notch—so if F’bombs aren’t your thing, be forewarned. The antagonists felt a little shallow, but given the society we’re transported to it works. Plus, the most world building comes into play in this part of the book. We finally get glimpses of this dystopian America outside of Colston’s home! Yay! I would have liked more in order to better understand what happened to make the world fall into disarray like this and why more people didn’t flee to the free zone, but oh well.
All in all, the characters were fine. I never really felt like Anna and Colston were a real couple until late into the second book, but mainly only in the last book—weird, right? And Cole and Colston's dialogue was very similar so it was hard to envision either as a 25 year old expert trainer or a 40+ year old arena combatant. The ending was a little flat when up against the epic final battle that comes just before, and again, because Colston never gets to a point where he wants to rectify his dystopian society, the reader is left knowing that things won’t change for anyone else. But, all in all, this was a fun read, especially for people who like a little future tech with their Roman historical fiction books. With the violence and mature language in the final section of the omnibus, however, you may want to consider the maturity level of the reader before recommending this book, but the writing and dialogue is fairly uncomplicated so it wouldn’t give any reader, regardless of age, trouble. If the second book had been more on pare with the first and last books, I’d give the omnibus closer to a 4 rating, but as I am rating it as its whole complete set, this is a 3.5 star for me, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes gladiator-esque stories! And thanks to the author for providing me with a copy for review!
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