Genre: YA Thriller
Since starting at Umfraville three years ago, Cate has wanted nothing more than to join the Assassins’ Guild, the school’s secret society. For non-Guild, life at Umfraville feels like a prison sentence. The school is located on Skola, a tiny island off the coast of Wales, where the quirky principal, Ezra, has limited the students’ internet access and banned phones.
To make life bearable, the Guild plays Killer, an elaborate game of wink murder in which the ‘killer’ stages elaborate pranks to ‘murder’ their fellow Guild members, while the rest of the players try to figure out who’s behind the killings before their number’s up.
Cate doesn’t know if she’s finally selected to join the Guild because her parents inherited the island a few years back, or because she made out with Alex (the Guild’s Grand Master) last term, or because her two best friends are already members. And, honestly, she doesn’t care: she’s in.
However, Cate’s childhood best friend and IT wunderkind, Vaughn, enrols at Umfarville the week Killer begins. He wants in on the game too, and when he builds the Guild their own social networking site, Crypt, they can hardly refuse. The only problem is that he and Cate didn’t part on the best of terms all those years ago, and she isn’t sure she can trust him.
With Crypt in play and the ‘killer’ pulling out all the stops, the Guild think they’re in for their best year yet. However, it quickly becomes apparent that someone isn’t playing by the rules, and what starts as a game soon turns deadly.
The Assassin Game (Scourcebooks Fire, Aug. 2016), originally published as Killer Game, is a wickedly fun thrill ride for horror fans.
It’s also been one of my favourite YA reads to date this year. I’m an absolute teen horror tragic. I started with Goosebumps when I was eight or nine, and by the end of primary school, I’d worked my way through a whole lot of Fear Street and Christopher Pike and started on Stephen King. And then I saw Scream. After that, my fellow horror junky friends and I spent the better part of high school watching every horror film we could get our hands on. To this day, if I ever find myself spending the night home alone, I’ll make myself a bunch of snacks, crack open a bottle of wine and settle in for a good ol’ slash-a-thon.
I also love a good boarding school story, especially if there’s a secret society involved, and I wrote my PhD on ‘campus clique crime novels’; The Assassin Game is all my favourite fictional things in one book. And, holy Ghostface, it’s so FUN!
There’s quite a lot to set up. Umfarville is an unusual school, and Killer is a relatively complex game. Then there’s a lot to work through bout how Cate’s family comes to inherit the island and her past with Vaughn, plus the reader has to get to know the Guild before the game can begin. So I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly McKay gets the narrative rolling. The story opens with Cate being ‘kidnapped’ by the Guild in the middle of the night for an elaborate initiation ritual, and the action charges on at a cracking pace from there.
That said, I did struggle somewhat to get my bearings. I couldn’t figure out how big Skola was supposed to be and where all the buildings were in relation to one another. Initially, I imagined the island to be quite small, but then Cate has trouble finding the cave where the Guild hold its Summonings, and she winds up lost on more than one occasion. That kinda stumped me. She’s been at Umfarville for three years, and her family owns the island—how has she not gone exploring?
In fact, there were a few details in the set up that I found misleading or else irrelevant, and I didn’t understand why McKay included them. Cate repeatedly reminds the reader that her parents unexpectedly inherited the island a few years ago, and I kept waiting for this detail to come into play. Also, Vaughn’s arrival is shrouded in mystery—he turns up out of nowhere the day of the first Summoning, and inexplicably knows all about the island and the Guild. I get that it’s meant to look suspicious, but at the end of the book when all is revealed, I still had questions about Vaughn. Then there are Ezra’s rules: no phones, no social media and strictly limited contact with the outside world. Early on, McKay also hints at the island’s dark history, including the fact that the school was once a psychiatric hospital. Honestly, for a while there I was expecting a Shutter Island-y/We Were Liars-y twist. Which would have been awesome. But no dice. In fact, there’s not even the obligatory, creepy AF chase scene through an abandoned wing of the psych ward. I felt kind of cheated by that. The action that is there is heart-thumpingly excellent, but to me, it seems McKay takes pains to plant a number of loaded guns, but never gets around to firing all of them.
Back to what does happen. If I think too hard about the resources the Guild have at their disposal, I’d be left scratching my head (e.g., they somehow manage to smuggle a generator down to their secret cave—where did they get it from? How did they manage to get it all the way to the cave? Why has no one noticed it’s missing from wherever they stole it? etc.) But it’s not the kind of story that welcomes deep scrutiny. And honestly, I had waaaay too much fun to care. The whole time I was reading, all I could think was: I want to be sixteen again, attend the world’s most creeptacular boarding school and sneak around in the dead of night playing Killer! I was completely swept up in the game, and the early kills are these wonderfully elaborate pranks inspired by the great horror films—the ‘killer’ starts with a bloody shower scene as a warm up and gets more inventive from there. As Grand Master, Alex throws some twists into the game to keep things interesting until the real horror show starts. Then it’s on like Donkey Kong.
At first, no one knows what’s going on. Is the ‘killer’ just being a tad overzealous? Are there two killers at work? Has an outsider infiltrated the game to try and get it shut down? Or is there something more sinister at play? As in the best thrillers, all the principal characters have motive for hurting the Guild, and I wasn’t certain who was responsible until the final ‘unmasking’.
That said, I found the final showdown and some of the action leading up to it a tad underwhelming. The only real violence occurs when Cate punches a guy in the face after he kisses her without invitation. Obviously, I don’t condone violence, but I also don’t hold with those who want to ban all violent books, films and video games. And, for me, The Assassin Game felt disappointingly sanitised. Given the kind of story this is, I expected blood and a body count, goddamnit!
But look, I’m nitpicking. At the time of reading, I was enjoying myself far too much to think critically. It’s been a good long while since I’ve been so engrossed in a book, and if you enjoy preppy thrillers, The Assassin Game makes for compulsive reading.
Thank you to Sourcebooks Fire for providing a copy of The Assassin Game in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up fourteen critical issues and twenty-six advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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