I am not lost…

September 28, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: THE JUDAS GAME by Ethan Cross

I received a copy of this book from The Story Plant in exchange for my honest review.

Two things stood out about this book to me as soon as it came in the mail. One, is that it’s by Ethan Cross. I’ve read Cross’ work before (see my review for BLIND JUSTICE here) and while it didn’t overwhelm me, there was a quality in the writing I appreciated. I have the benefit of knowing another Story Plant reader, and so I could ask him if the body count was better before I read it. (His verdict was that yes, the body count was lower in this, so I was content with that.)

Second, is that the word Judas shows up in the title. For those who know me well, this is an instant catch for me. I have what is likely an unhealthy obsession with Judas Iscariot, and pretty much anything that has to do with him. I’m aware that this book likely doesn’t REALLY have anything to do with him, but hey. It got my attention. Betrayal is probably a theme here.

And…yes, it is a theme. But…there are other problems with this book.

So the basic premise of the book is that there’s this prison and it’s supposed to be the best prison ever. High tech, very inmate-friendly, no escapes ever. Prison of the future. And of course, everything goes wrong. So the Shepherd Organization (something from earlier books of Cross’ and not something I know a lot about, though it’s not a hinderance to understanding the story) comes in and tries to figure out how all these people are dying and being shot and problems problems within the magical prison of the future.

They’ve enlisted (kinda) the help of a “former” mass murderer and generally unhinged person by the name of Francis Ackerman Jr. He’s “helping” them, being a consultant of sorts. How this actually plays out is…differing, depending on the situation.

There are a lot of players doing a lot of things, but in the end it’s focused on tracking down the Judas Killer and his various minions, at least one of which goes by the name Demon. …really.

I liked this book, or at least parts of it. Ackerman is a fascinating character, and broken in all kinds of nifty ways. Seeing him interact with his brother, Marcus–a part of the Shepherd Organization, I believe–is even more fun, as you see the nature vs. nurture come out in full force between the two. (I think Ackerman makes mention of just that in the book, as well.) As for other characters, the best one is a bit of a spoiler, and it’s the only part that came as any kind of surprise. I knew something was up with the character, just not what. When we find out who Judas is, I was just so tired that it wasn’t even surprising. It became “well of course it was. Who else would it be?”

That’s the crux of my issue with this book. If Ackerman and Judas were our two broken characters, chasing each other down in a weird version of cat and mouse, I’d have no problem with it. The trouble is that literally every character we meet is broken in some way. And not just “character flaw” kind of broken. I’m talking deep, psychological problems kind of broken. And it becomes exhausting after a while, trying to swim through everyone’s shattered minds to find the story to follow. You need a respite. You need a straight man for the comedy to work, and this is just a book full of comedians. It’s tiring.

I’m still impressed by Cross’ writing. Like I noted, Ackerman is a brilliant character. You really need to put yourself in some other shoes to make that mind work, and set aside a lot of normal thoughts. It does seem to bleed a little into everyone else, and there’s a few heavy handed “and suddenly they realized…” moments that make me sigh. Smart people doing decidedly not-smart things, obvious overtures to secret identities…it falls flat too often.

It does seem that he’s gearing up for more books in this series, and I’m willing to give them a read as well. Particularly if Ackerman is still around. But if we get another book full of broken birds, I may have to read it very…slowly. And with something happier in the middle.

Rating: *** (Worth a Look)

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