Twenty-first century Agatha Christie with a dark twist, this is the perfect thriller to keep a YA audience gripped and guessing.
The Burning Embers Foundation claims to specialise in finding unique and exciting ways to reward students who excel in academics, fine arts and athletics. They’ve invited five teens to a murder mystery dinner where they will be challenged to unravel the mystery and apprehend the killer. There’s everything to play for because the winner will take home the coveted $50,000 Burning Embers Scholarship to be used at the university of his or her choice. It sounds too good to be true but everything checks out – the website, the phone number, the testimonials from former winners. None of the five question the invitation: it’s only when they arrive that they discover they all know each other and they realise the date of the party is exactly one year after another party. A party where someone died. None of them has told the truth about what happened that fateful night – until now.
I was immediately intrigued when I read the blurb for this book. This was partly because of the unusual concept but also because I was interested to see how author, Chelsea Pitcher, would attempt to make the outlandish scenario seem even vaguely credible. If I’m honest, I was dubious anyone could pull this off. How wrong I was! Starting with Juniper then moving on to Ruby, Parker, Brett and Gavin in each of the subsequent chapters, we all too easily accept and understand their motivations for attending.
There’s a large cast of characters (in addition to our five participants we also have the previous year’s victim, Shane, and his sister, Brianna) so it takes a short while to fully assimilate exactly who is who. There’s also an awful lot of information to take in as each character has a complex history and backstory that we need to fully understand in order to make sense of their various actions and interactions. Added to this, at just the right time, we need to understand everything that happened leading up to, and at, the party the previous year.
Fortunately we are in the hands of an expert. This is a masterfully structured plot that reveals just the right amount of information to keep us gripped and guessing. The plot moves constantly forward, raising question after increasingly sinister question, whilst also making clever use of flashbacks to fill in the necessary gaps. The characterisation is strong despite the third person point of view (which is rather unusual for modern YA but works well) and we’re quickly picking our favourites and forming our own theories. You may guess snippets but I suspect few, if any, readers will be able to predict the most significant plot points.
While this is essentially a nail-biting thriller that will keep you up late into the night, I can’t conclude a review without special mention of the way the author sensitively weaves some important issues into the narrative ranging from domestic violence to the nature of friendship, mental health and white privilege.
If you enjoyed this, I’d strongly recommend you read One of Use is Lying by Karen McManus. Alternatively, why not try Your Turn to Die by Sue Wallman.
Publication Date: December 2018
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Author’s Website: Chelsea Pitcher