Diana Urban does not hold back her punches with her newest mystery/thriller, These Deadly Games.
Crystal Donovan’s life comes to a crashing halt when she receives a video from an unknown person showing her younger sister gagged, bound, and crying. The unknown offender leaves Crystal with the instructions to play a series of games… or her sister dies. Helpless to the whims of the kidnapper, Crystal is forced to play game after game, from eating brownies to stealing a test answer key.
But when the kidnapper begins to target Crystal’s friends and the games grow more and more malicious, Crystal learns that she must quickly uncover who is behind these games before they make her choose between her sister and her friends once and for all.
Relentless pacing and trigger warnings
These Deadly Games starts off innocently enough, with the biggest drama in Crystal’s life being who among her friend group is going to compete in a gaming tournament where there is a large cash prize for the winner.
But after the first chapter concludes, we are almost instantly treated with the horrific start to the true and sinister game of this story. Both Crystal and the reader are left breathless with the terrifying turn of events that happens when she receives the video of her sister gagged and bound. Moreover, once the games begin, the pace becomes brutal with how much suspense and fear is packed into Crystal’s thoughts as she struggles to solve puzzles, play games, and even hurt her friends in her quest to save her sister.
This is especially clear when it’s revealed that Crystal is being watched all the time. The kidnapper sends her messages about her whereabouts, such as knowing when she enters her room, who she is speaking to, and when she deviates from the kidnapper’s instructions.
There are a lot of red herrings that Urban introduces to lead her readers down several wrong paths when it comes to uncovering the kidnapper. It truly does make it so that the reader is forced to keep track of these potential leads, scouring the pages for clues.
I would strongly advise readers to look up potential trigger warnings for this novel, as there are descriptions of child kidnapping, child harm, and domestic abuse depicted in These Deadly Games.
A frustrating twist
Urban should be praised for her ability to ensnare her audience, keeping us suspended in stasis of terror while we devour the story. She does a great job in leaving behind breadcrumbs of the identity of the kidnapper, making for a second-read that is just as thrilling as the first.
Unfortunately, while the biggest twist of the novel did catch me off guard, I found myself a little peeved that These Deadly Games had a teenager be the antagonist of the story. This is not because I don’t think teenagers cannot be antagonists, but because I find it incredibly hard to believe that a teenager–even an adult eighteen year old –had the ability to do everything that the kidnapper does during the story.
Dylan–or Andrew, as we come to find out–is only eighteen, yet we are to be expected to believe that he could hack into multiple devices and computers in a variety of different locations, all for the sake of tormenting Crystal.
It just seems improbable that he would know exactly what she was doing, unless he managed to hack not only into her phone, but also security systems, camera, tablets, other people’s computers and devices, and more. There is no way one teenage boy would be able to do all of that, even if they were an experienced hacker. Otherwise, anyone with that kind of talent did not belong in a standard high school.
Moreover, his escape from sure death at the end was also incredibly improbable, to the point where I was taken out of the novel because it was so baffling. I am unsure if Urban plans on continuing this story in a sequel, but I felt that this could have been an excellent standalone without this minor twist.
Regardless of both these elements, These Deadly Games was a fun read. Provided that readers take care to look up the trigger warnings, it was a compelling mystery/thriller that will horrify and shock you.
These Deadly Games by Diana Urban was released on February 1st, 2022.