Genre: Literary Horror/Thriller Published: William Morrow, October 5th 2021 My Rating: 3/5 stars
“In my observation, there’s only one thing that can triumph over fear, at least temporarily.”
“What’s that?” Bryan asked
“Well”, John said, “greed of course”.
Four contestants, six cells, countless litres of fake blood… And one real murder.
That is the basic set up of Reprieve, James Han Mattson’s sophomore novel, and first foray into the literary horror genre.
The Quigley House is an escape room like you’ve never experienced before. A full-haunt comprised of 6 consecutive cells, where a team of 4 contestants must find envelopes amid scares both inanimate and alive, in order to continue to the next cell. In cell 6, a large prize sum will away the team, given that they all reach the end without yelling out the safe word “reprieve”.
In 1997, four contestants make it to the final cell of the Quigley House, before a man barges in with a knife and brutally murders one of them. Told through a combination of flashbacks and courtroom transcripts, we unravel the truth of what transpired in the house that faithful day, and whether or not this game was rigged from the start.
Reprieve is a difficult book to review. It has received early praise calling it a new American classic, and although it hits home on many levels, it also drops the ball too often on others. Overall I wanted to love it more than I did.
Let’s start off with the good:
Based off the description alone, you may be fooled into thinking this is a simple slasher story, but by cleverly bending and combining elements from different genres Reprieve elevates itself far above that. Woven throughout the blood and gore is a lot of powerful social commentary on racism, greed, prejudice and our societal fascination and fetishization of fear. Additionally, elements of misdirection and gaslighting amp up the tension to a nail-biting level in about the final 100 pages. Which characters are actors? Who is in on the scheme? Who is really playing games with whom? Had the whole novel been at the level of these final 100 pages, it’d been a 5-star candidate. Unfortunately it’s not.
The first 300-or-so pages were quite frankly a bit boring to me. We get descriptions of the event within the first 4 cells of the haunt (loads of actors splashing fake blood on the contestants), alternated with background of the characters and a few court-transcripts. It becomes repetitive soon and lost its appeal to me. If the goal was character-building, I don’t think the book succeeded. Too many indistinct characters were introduced in a short amount of time, having me confused as to who was who. In the end, most of them felt very much like “token minority” characters, without much depth. Maybe this was part of the commentary, but I’m just not here for it at all.
In addition to being flat, the characters dialogue is written very juvenile, which creates a bit of a tonal mismatch with the themes of the book. While the story is definitely meant for an adult audience, the characters and dialogue (and the level of scares in the first 4 cells) are so immature that it feels more suited to a YA-audience.
Overall a decent thriller, laced with social commentary, that unfortunately didn’t quite live up to its full potential.
Reprieve will be available in print and in e-book format from the 5th of October 2021. Many thanks to the publisher William Morrow & Bloomsbury for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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