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Arena    by Karen Hancock order for
by Karen Hancock
Order:  USA  Can
Bethany, 2002 (2002)

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* *   Reviewed by Wesley Williamson

Callie Hayes is a sad loser. She wants to be an artist, but has not the strength of will to keep trying if she does not achieve perfection at first try. She earns barely enough to live on raising rats for laboratory research. Coerced by her vivacious friend, Meg Riley, she agrees to earn $30 easy money by participating in a psychology experiment. When, after much hesitation, she is taken to the beginning of the 'obstacle course', she changes her mind, refuses to cooperate, and is cast into an alien world without instructions.

The back pack which was sent through with her contains a number of objects of no obvious utility, and a field manual (the Bible?), whose instructions she doesn't really understand, and doesn't want to believe anyway. She is forced to take the path to the arena, but becomes lost, (partly because of her intense acrophobia,) and fortunately meets Pierce Andrews, who has survived the alien perils for five years.

Together, they and others in Pierce's group battle monsters and eventually, after many twists and turns of fortune, reach the Arena proper. There they discover that they have been conscripted as warriors in the conflict between good and evil, which, somehow or other, will be resolved by their actions. Success, although they have free will, depends solely on their unthinking trust and faith in Elhanu, who created the worlds and also the Arena.

Arena is a rather bizarre fusion of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and early SF pulp magazines; either that or the dramatization of a Christian computer game, if there is such an odd combination. However, Hancock, rather surprisingly since this is her first novel, is competent enough to make a somewhat simplistic conception eminently readable. Her characters are complex and well drawn, particularly Pierce, and of course Callie, though she never quite gives up her loser's aura. Moreover, also surprisingly for a Christian fundamentalist writer, she allows her heroine to be nearly seduced several times; indeed, she is only saved by Pierce's determination to remain a virgin until he is married.

I do hope that Karen Hancock can break through the bounds she has set around herself and write an unfettered fantasy. She has obviously got the ability to become one of the leaders in the field.

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