Arena by Karen Hancock

After signing up for a psychology experiment, a young woman finds herself in a dangerous “arena” where she may lose her life trying to find her way out.

Arena is an allegory for the Christian walk of faith, something I knew when I bought the book but then forgot until about halfway through. I think that’s a pretty good sign that the book mostly escapes being on-the-nose and heavy handed in its plot execution and character development.

Callie is an ordinary girl who wants more from life but doesn’t know how to get it. Her best friend signs them both up for a psychology experiment where they’re told they will have their decision making abilities tested. Callie is then dropped unceremoniously into a harsh, dangerous, deserted landscape with nothing but a backpack filled with strange objects and an instruction manual she can’t comprehend. Told to stay on the white path, Callie falls off and finds herself menaced by a frightening monster. She’s rescued by Pierce, a handsomely grizzled man who says he’s been in the Arena for five years and doesn’t think there’s any way out. He warns her of the many dangers in the Arena and takes her to meet his band of allies. As Callie and her new friends/enemies make their way through the Arena, they are tested, threatened, and challenged beyond all imagining.

What surprised me about Arena was that it was not afraid to get dark, much darker than Christian fiction usually does. I really appreciated that. The risks all felt real and dangerous and I did question whether the characters would make it out of the Arena. The second half got a little didactic but I still felt that the author pushed the envelope in a surprising way.

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