Ten writers are selected for a summer-long writing retreat with the most celebrated and reclusive author in the world. Their host is the legendary Roderick Wells. Handsome, enigmatic, and fiendishly talented, Wells promises to teach his pupils about writing, about magic, about the untapped potential that each of them possesses. Most of all, he plans to teach them about the darkness in their hearts.
The writers think they are signing up for a chance at riches and literary prestige. But they are really entering the twisted imagination of a deranged genius, a lethal contest pitting them against one another in a struggle for their sanity and their lives. They have entered into Roderick Wells’s most brilliant and horrible creation.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher, Flame Tree Press, for providing me with a review copy!
Last year, I read and reviewed The Siren and the Specter by Jonathan Janz, and it was a terrific experience; I loved the writing, found the characters incredibly well-crafted and the plot tightly paced. It was, without doubt, one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read. When I saw The Dark Game, Janz’s new book, pop up on my Netgalley feed I knew I had to request it, and I was extremely pleased when I got approved for it.
I dove into The Dark Game as soon as I had the time, and I managed to finish it fairly quickly. However, sadly, reading The Dark Game felt more like a chore I had to complete than an exciting adventure I could hardly wait to get back to. Now, don’t get me wrong, The Dark Game isn’t a terrible, or even a bad book, no. It simply didn’t feel special; it lacked the ‘it’ factor The Siren and the Specter had.
I’m very much a character person; that is, I care more about the quality of characters than the plot, and unfortunately, they weren’t the most impressive here. At the very beginning of The Dark Game we are introduced to a bunch of characters: the ten authors competing in Wells’ game, as well as Wells himself, his wife and even some of their staff. It’s a lot to keep track of, and the only reason why it works is because Janz created vivid backstories for each of the ten contestants. Sadly, though, I couldn’t help, but feel as though their past sins were all these characters had going it for them – besides their wrongdoings, they didn’t have a strong personality, much less consistent development.
From what I knew of the book, it was obvious there is something sinister going on at Wells’ mansion, something that will undoubtedly result in characters dying. I love the idea that no one is safe, that anyone could drop dead at any moment, so I was fascinated by this aspect of the story. However, my fascination didn’t last long; as the characters’ backstories were revealed, I felt more and more certain of who would survive. It’s very telling when you have some despicable characters, some morally gray ones and then two that didn’t really commit a crime and are portrayed as sympathetic. Furthermore, however much Janz tried to push different characters into the spotlight, it was painfully obvious who were at the center of the novel.
I was let down by how clumsily written the relationship of and the interactions between the characters were. With ten strangers being locked up I expected to see competitiveness, ally ships forming, tension, fear, distrust… but didn’t get any of that. There were small bursts of these things, but nothing that truly impacted the story. We get a scene where three contestants gather together to discuss that they should remain kind to each other during the competition, but as this scene never leads to anything significant, I’m not even sure why it was included. Similarly, a character is falsely kind to one of the protagonists but when her insincerity is revealed it doesn’t have an impact on the story or the characters.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the world building was inconsistent and most of it was left unexplained. I wouldn’t be mad about the latter, as the protagonists themselves couldn’t get the full picture, but it bothered me that they weren’t even questioning how all this could be happening.
Even though this review couldn’t really be considered positive, I do believe The Dark Game is a novel many people will enjoy, as it is fast paced, entertaining and packs a few strong punches. It wasn’t a book I loved, but I’ll definitely give a chance to Janz’s future works. He is undoubtedly a talented writer, but, in my opinion,The Dark Game fails to show the full extent of his talent.
Have you read The Dark Game? Perhaps something else by Jonathan Janz? What were your impressions? Who are some of your favorite horror authors and novels?