Book Review – These Deadly Games by Diana Urban

Pages: 397
Published: 1st February 2022
Genre: Young Adult Thriller
Trigger warnings: Child abduction, child death

When Crystal Donovan gets a message on a mysterious app with a video of her little sister gagged and bound, she agrees to play the kidnapper’s game. At first, they make her complete bizarre tasks: steal a test and stuff it in a locker, bake brownies, make a prank call.

But then Crystal realizes each task is meant to hurt – and kill – her friends, one by one. But if she refuses to play, the kidnapper will kill her sister. Is someone trying to take her team out of the running for a gaming tournament? Or have they uncovered a secret from their past, and wants them to pay for what they did…

As Crystal makes the impossible choices between her friends and her sister, she must uncover the truth and find a way to outplay the kidnapper… before it’s too late.

This book contains no shortage of thrills and has an intensity that leaves you hanging on the edge of your seat for long periods, but it also requires you to suspend your disbelief to the maximum. With a chilling concept that is translated into a remarkably far-fetched plot, it does at least succeed in delivering dramatic twists and a mystery with numerous possible suspects.

There are comparisons to be drawn with the author’s debut novel All Your Twisted Secrets in that it possesses elements such an ensemble group of six teenagers who are placed in a high stakes, life-threatening situation which is being controlled by an unknown entity. On this occasion it is slightly less successful, but it is extremely gripping nonetheless.

Crystal Donovan is addicted to video games and together with her friends regularly plays Mortal Dusk, a game similar to Fortnite, often live-streaming their sessions online. She is desperate to earn enough points to qualify for an upcoming e-sports tournament where the winners receive a large cash prize, but only teams of up to five can enter, meaning that one of them will miss out.

After fitting in a morning session, Crystal drives to school with her younger sister Caelyn, who is about to go on a trip for a few days. Later, when Crystal is in class, she receives a message from someone called An0nym0us1 via a new app which has appeared on her mobile phone. It displays a video of Caelyn being restrained and threatened at knifepoint, and the message says that she will die unless Crystal takes part in their game.

The app proceeds to send Crystal all kinds of instructions that she must follow in order to keep her sister alive, but she soon realises that An0nym0us1’s games are designed to put her friends in mortal danger, leading to some shocking incidents. Initially Crystal believes that their motive might be something to do with Mortal Dusk, but then the evidence begins to point to a guilty secret she is carrying from five years ago.

After introducing the characters and their devotion to gaming, the book really starts with a bang as Crystal receives the first message from An0nym0us1, and from there it is fast-paced and relentless. A lot of the chapters end with cliffhangers and so much of what takes place is furiously intense, making you want to read on – just to see what crazy, slightly messed up thing is going to happen next.

The number of characters involved creates all kinds of theories and possible motives, and there are a few red herrings along the way as well as things that at first glance, do not appear to add up. One of the clues is hidden in plain sight and I managed to work that out eventually, while the identity of An0nym0us1 is a well hidden mystery at first but becomes easier to decipher once it all starts to unravel.

Even early on however, it was hard to shake the feeling that certain key parts of the plot were not very believable, despite the many wonders and capabilities of modern technology. That was not so bad at first as it made for an entertaining if surreal read, but as the revelations begin to arrive in the final few chapters, it goes a few steps too far and in doing so loses some credibility. It was as if the author had to bend the plot so everything fit, like a stone that is being held at an angle to prevent a tower from collapsing.

The entire story is written in the first person from Crystal’s point of view, including a number of short flashbacks to what happened five years earlier. As expected given her situation, she is written in quite a frantic way and there are moments that seem to suggest she might be an unreliable narrator. Her reaction to what is happening is realistic for the most part, but then again she is not completely likeable, jumping to erratic conclusions and approaching some of the twisted games with a hint of relish.

In fairness, none of the main characters truly stood out as easy to connect with. Akira maybe comes closest and Randall is easy going to a fault, while initially it was hard to tell him apart from Matty. The most complex one of them all is easily Zoey, who has a very sharp mind but sometimes seems a trifle out of place in the friendship group because of her vindictiveness.

They are all obsessed by Mortal Dusk and that is demonstrated by the number of technical terms used in the book, their respective computing skills, and their ongoing rivalry with a famous online streamer known as Fishman. He only appears a few times, but it is entertaining when he does and furthermore, he comes across as very shifty and suspicious.

The app on Crystal’s phone and the messages from An0nym0us1 are frightening, and the writing really does help to ratchet up the suspense levels. There is nothing particularly subtle in here and it is not meant to be; instead it is all about shock factor and the author succeeds on that front, certainly when the games start becoming progressively lethal.

That trend continues through to the ending, where there are more revelations. Some of these are genuinely surprising and lead to some burning questions, and there are some fascinating scenes that play out, although ultimately it takes things just a bit too far. This means the feeling of the story being far-fetched is the recurring thought upon turning the last page.

Overall, a scary and dramatic young adult thriller that keeps you hooked with its breathless plot and outlandishly modern concept, but is also too contrived to be an exceptional book. The author clearly pulls out all the stops to make it as intense as possible and keep you guessing, and even though the results are mixed, it is not forgettable in the least.

An exciting book because of the concept, but also rather far-fetched and that increasingly limited my enjoyment of it. Cool for the main character to share the same surname as me, though.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐


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