Waking up in an eerie limbo land, Mara finds she does not know where she is, or even much about who she is. There she meets the Messenger of Fear, a mysterious and tortured soul, and she has no choice but to follow him as they visit the past and present to look upon various lives with one thing in common: wicked acts that have gone unpunished. Until now.
The Messenger offers such offenders a choice: endure their darkest fear, and the consequences of living through the experience; or play a nightmarish game. If you lose or refuse to play, you’ll suffer the same punishment, but if you win, you’ll return to your life unscathed.
While the twist in the tale regarding why Mara is involved in this world may feel inevitable to some, it’s well-played and suitably red-herringed, and it’s still a complete page-turner waiting for the characters to reach the same realisation as they play the pawn to the greater – and inner – powers of seemingly aloof Good, and seductively toxic Evil.
Refreshingly romance-free, many other very pertinent teen issues are explored openly and honestly, from family life to bullying, suicide and guilt – along with the provocation in the reader to examine their own thoughts on moral behaviour and punishment.
It’s an absolutely absorbing and brisk read, but does feel a bit slight when there is such potential for deeper characterisation and dilemma, but that may well be a planned slow burn across the rest of the coming series. As it stands, this story functions more like a prologue, or dream allegory; short but never simple, with intrigue for the future. A lesser book might have relied on the dark games and fear punishments as a grisly draw of entertainment – and they are suitably horrifying, in Grant’s hallmark imaginative thriller style – but only a few are mentioned, and used well to underscore the theme of actions and consequences via this chilling bogeyman of a tale.