Review: “The Dead Game,” Susanne Leist

Pros: Meh
Cons: So chaotic, random, needlessly complicated, and self-contradictory
Rating: 2 out of 5

Susanne Leist’s The Dead Game: Book One of The Dead Game Series sounded intriguing. Invitations to a party at an abandoned mansion, things turning deadly… awesome. Unfortunately, it really didn’t work out so well.

End House in Oasis, Florida, has a long and storied past tainted by evil. Linda has moved to town and opened a bookstore, and she’s in a friend group with Shana (who reads tarot cards), sarcastic Mike, sweet David, “Barbie doll” Louise, mysterious Todd, and a few others. They all get invitations to a party at End House. Only Mike actually wants to go, but no one else will let him go alone. When they arrive at the house, it immediately plunges them into hell-house territory: giant circular saws, tigers, body parts, and so on. Most of the group makes it out, only to gradually realize that there’s something wrong with the entire town. Linda and Shana do the rounds of the townspeople trying to get information, only to be told point-blank that they’re dealing with two warring groups of vampires.

Yeah, I know, vampires and “hell house” don’t really go together in general. They also don’t go together in this book. There’s a lot of stuff that just gets jumbled in together. Toward the end the author keeps introducing new supernaturals or new complications one right after another in the space of a few pages each. It’s like the supernatural elements of the story are all piled on top of one another with no real structure.

The pacing in this book is terrible. Some things are drawn way out. Other things are piled one on top of another. The opening could be creepy, but it’s done in such a quick monotone that it feels more like a summary. In fact, a lot of the beginning of this book feels like it’s summarizing some other novel, even though this is book one in a series.

Most of the characters are stereotypes of one kind or another, and fairly flimsy ones at that. Only Linda gets any real background, and it’s uninteresting and utterly irrelevant to the story, making it a waste of space. The background of people in Oasis going missing is tossed into this same section and similarly summed up as though this were book two or three in a series. No one except Mike thinks it’s a good idea to go to the party, and the locals, like Todd, discourage them, so frankly it’s very difficult to believe that they all decided to go anyway. Shana even drew tarot cards–“I drew the Angel of Death, which means death”–and then totally argues that it isn’t dangerous to go, even after noting that her cards are “never wrong.” This is the kind of inconsistent back-and-forth that colors the entire book.

Next, Linda and Shana decide to go door-to-door asking people about End House. This reads like a video game, where the character goes to each door in turn, clicks on a person, gets one or two mysterious lines of dialogue concerning the plot, then moves on to the next door.

Events feel sudden, random, disjointed, meaningless, arbitrary. Todd notes at one point that it’s Friday the 13th, but this is never mentioned again and seems utterly irrelevant to everything. When the group of friends goes to End House for the party, they don’t even bother waiting for their mysterious host before splitting up to search the place. And of course, the promised death traps jump out with no lead-in and no connection to anything.

When “demons” are mentioned, people accept it all too casually. The main characters meet a character called Wolf who acts cartoonishly evil, and then they just kind of brush it all off and forget about him for a while. Once the vampires come into things, there are The Watchers (yes, “The” is capitalized), The Elders, The Dead, and a whole taxonomy of groups, which is totally at odds with the expected feel of an advertised haunted house story.

Then, oh yes, we have the cliché of the old, evil vampire who falls in insta-love with the heroine, and who hypnotizes her, and of course her quasi-boyfriend blames her for falling under the vampire’s spell.

Linda and Shana are, unfortunately, not the brightest bulbs in the shed. They do things like go check out empty mansions alone even though they have friends who could go with them. They deliberately put themselves in harm’s way to force Todd and the sheriff to come to their rescue. When one of their friends starts acting weird after a major trauma, they just laugh about it and act like it’s no big deal. It’s facepalm-worthy.

Enough tropes and clichés get roped into this story that it sometimes feels like: “This is the part where trope X happens, and now cliché Y happens… what do you mean they’re contradictory?”

There’s a handy deus ex machina that takes care of every unwinnable task, which is such a cop-out. Everybody also stops to handily explain themselves. A vampire slayer shows up and everyone takes their existence super-calmly. The story has more false endings than a maze and just gets ridiculously over-complicated at the end.

I really can’t recommend this one. It’s a total jumble of contradictions, deus ex machinae, and clichés.

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