In Smith’s (Alive! Not Dead, 2014) thriller, a man is caught in an adult version of hide-and-seek, complete with rifle-toting players who’ll kill to stay alive.
Brad Jeffries signed up for Game Corp’s infamous competition to win the $10,000 prize. Though the game’s Head Leader has become a celebrity with frequent interviews and best-selling self-help books, no one’s ever seen actual game footage. Nevertheless, a bus transports Brad and 19 other players to an undisclosed neighborhood in Atlanta, where they learn the rules: each round has one seeker, who can take out hiders by shooting them dead with a rifle. Leaders are likewise available to remove players from the game—i.e., by killing them or having them killed—for violating rules, like trying to leave before the game is finished. Brad wants to expose the mysterious game, but now with a promise of a billion dollars for the winner, he may have to spill blood just to avoid losing. Stories such as this have developed their own subgenre, but Smith is fortunately aware of the plot’s familiarity. He wastes no time and dives into the short novel with gusto, opening immediately with Game Corp transporting players. Danger is quickly evident: leaders provide an apt display of how players are “taken from the game” (the game starts with fewer than the initial 20 contestants). Brad’s internal debates consist of questions readers will be asking themselves: the validity of the billion-dollar award, or the possibility of one or more of the players being Game Corp plants. Players are designated by numbers, so most don’t have genuine names, but that doesn’t diminish their impact. For example, Brad never learns the real name of his most formidable (and terrifying) opponent. Never-ending game play also helps maintain a speedy tempo; even brief moments of downtime are intense, because the Head Leader adds new rules whenever he sees fit. Brad’s natural progression into a bloodthirsty competitor, however, is perhaps the story’s most disconcerting aspect. Smith falters only with the ending, which feels rushed. But there’s definite resolution because—for better or worse—the game’s over.
Fast, incisive, and audaciously entertaining. Readers may have seen it before, but they’ll likely enjoy it this time around.