So that was a week without a review. Fun. Today though, I have something for you. Thanks to the awesome folks at Ace, here’s Gauntlet. Enjoy!

Gauntlet cover

A year ago Kali Ling was the first female captain in the Virtual Gaming League’s history. Now she’s the youngest ever team owner. With a new tournament starting up, pitting the best gamers in the world against each other, Defiance is definitely on board. But, between the new pods that constantly adapt to players actions and all her new responsibility as team owner, can Kali stick to her convictions or will she wind up being just as bad as the rest of the VGL when the chips are down?

I have issues reviewing this book. That’s one thing I absolutely need to mention first off, because what’s good can be really good. Unfortunately that’s balanced by the fact that what’s bad tends to be really bad. So, let’s get going.

One of the big things with Gauntlet, much like the book before it Arena, is that Holly Jennings tends to do really well with her character stuff. When Kali is interacting with her team there’s this great flow, these are characters who care about and support each other. They work through their issues by talking, and it’s made clear that communication is part of why they work as a team. I love this aspect of the book. I adore that problems get worked through because friendship and communication. But then that’s kind of why I can’t stand the romance between Kali and one of her teammates, Rooke.

Back in Arena, Rooke was brought in to replace one of their other teammates. He was new and hot and kind of a jerk, so obviously he’s the love interest. It felt under developed then. In this book though we start off with the relationship reset, Rooke has cut Kali out and left the team with no explanation. He did it for her own good, so he says, which immediately loses my interest. It feels like a lot of the Kali and Rooke working things out got cut in an earlier draft and was only left in so that she would be as off balance as possible at the beginning of the book. There was a lot of really self pitying stuff from Kali regarding how she’d been just as bad to him last year that just didn’t really pan. I could have done with a lot less of it, especially since the whole Kali and Rooke thing feels like Jennings was told she had to have a love interest in there somewhere.

Gauntlet can also feel very scattered. At first the deal is that Rooke fell off the wagon and what if he can’t sort things out. Add to that Kali not being able to balance leading the team and doing her job as the team owner. Add to that the tournament itself and something being off about it. Add to that the team being attacked in the tabloids. Add to that Kali still wants to fight corruption in the VGL and do what’s best for her teammates. It can alternate between feeling like there are three different plots that never really go anywhere and feeling like everything is happening at once. A lot of that could have been cleaned up by removing repetition and focusing more on the tournament itself and any single one of the other problems. There was a lot of repetition, mostly things that the reader really shouldn’t have needed to be reminded of like Kali worrying about doing what’s best for the team.

I would have personally loved to see more of the tournament itself. Jennings does a great job with her action scenes and, with the core idea the book is being sold on being a massive tournament, I feel like going more into the game itself would have been an excellent choice. It’s hard to overstate how much I like the fight scenes here. They feel visceral and epic. They’re the place where the characters are in both the most and least amount of danger and that lends them an interesting weight that a lot of the rest of the book lacks. The fights feel a lot like a well done boss fight. They feel like Defiance is up against the wall.

When we finally get the big fight scenes it’s, of course, near the climax of the book. So, it’s actually kind of fitting that my last issue with Gauntlet is with its ending. There were a couple of places where it would have felt really natural to end Gauntlet. They would have been solid and left it open for the next book without feeling like an ad for it. The author went past both of those and just went ahead and set up book three. My issue with this is twofold. One, it gives up a more solid satisfying ending for a much weaker one. Two, it makes the rest of the book feel like less. Suddenly it feels like reaching the end of a game and finding out that the ending it paid DLC. It feels like there is less point to Gauntlet because here’s this cliffhanger that steals this book’s resolution for another book’s beginning.

So, where’s that leave Gauntlet? A big part of my issue with reviewing Gauntlet is that the stuff I didn’t enjoy made me dislike that I enjoyed the stuff I did. For every time there was a scene of Defiance being a great team and friends and just really jiving well together, I remembered that Kali and Rooke didn’t have that for their scenes as a couple. For every awesome fight, there were a bunch of other scenes that felt like repetition for the sake of padding. For all that I really enjoyed the bulk of the book, the ending left me feeling like I just discovered that my Little Orphan Annie decoder ring was an ad this whole time.

It’s a decent enough read, and a good sophomore novel. There’re definitely bits that need work. Jennings could certainly tighten up her writing some, get rid of some repetitiveness. But at the end of the day, even with its issues, Gauntlet is a fun read. Frustrating because of the bigger problems, but fun. It’s definitely a three out of five, but I think with a little more time and a couple more books Jennings could be a five star writer.