An Excellent Romance and a Middling Mystery in “The Inheritance Games”

It’s a pitch straight out of Knives Out. Or, barring that, a common American fantasy. Avery Grambs, a working-class teenager with a penchant for actuarial science, struggles to make ends meet, until, one day, an eccentric billionaire bites it, and leaves her his entire fortune.

Except, in The Inheritance Games, it comes with a caveat: in order to receive this windfall, Avery must survive a year in the aforementioned billionaire’s extravagant mansion…with his disinherited and displeased family. Along the way, she’ll uncover damning secrets, solve puzzles, and find herself entangled with two of the family’s grandsons in a love triangle that recalls the young adult days of yore: I’ve yet to encounter a reader who hasn’t chosen a side, and vehemently so. (For the record: Grayson. Obviously.)

Delivered in sparse, first-person prose and short chapters that seem to devour every spare moment you have, The Inheritance Games is one thing above all else: decadent. Literally decadent, with cartoonish wealth adorning every page, but decadent as a reading experience, too. Jennifer Lynn Barnes crafts a frothy thriller with an edge as a future comfort read, using the trappings of Avery’s flashy new circumstances in a way perfectly calibrated to induce giddy delight on her behalf. Like Monte Carlo (2011) with life-and-death stakes, or, again, Knives Out with, admittedly, far fewer knives.

And, yes––if you’ve seen the book around, had your doubts, maybe found yourself guessing at the root of its popularity, your suspicions are absolutely correct: it’s about the love triangle. As mentioned, it’s nigh-impossible not to pick a side, and, what’s more, it’s impossible to be assured of your odds once you do. Whatever the state of the main mystery’s reveals, the long game Barnes is playing in the romantic subplot department remains refreshingly oblique from start to finish. In fact, one could even make the case that this mystery is the most compelling among all The Inheritance Games has to offer.

Ultimately, this means that if the romance doesn’t hook you, it’s unlikely the rest of the book will, but there are definitely worse gambits to make, and the oft-dreaded love triangle, in my opinion, shows decided prowess. There are two very important things Barnes gets right in her crafting of the love stories between Avery and the two walking disasters known as Jameson and Grayson Hawthorne: value opposition, and baggage.

Avery, as a heroine, is an intriguing blend of pragmatism and recklessness. In innocuous, non-inheritance-related moments, we see her struggle between her daydreams of travel and her hard-edged game plan of majoring for salary. This distinction, as you might have guessed, is owed in large part to class, and once her class changes, the balance predictably shifts. But the question, in some form, remains. Will her new wealth allow her to let go and pursue her dream, or will she put her shrewdness to use as the governess of a fortune with broader implications?

Enter her possible romantic trysts and perfectly crafted character foils: Jameson, the reckless, obsessed middle child, and Grayson, the somber, dutiful older brother. They are her conflicting sides personified, rendering any argument about who she should end up with (Grayson) an argument about what course her characterization sets for her future (Grayson). This is what I mean when I say “value opposition:” a set of ideas ensconced in characters so purposefully that Spark Notes should make an infographic about it.

It’s difficult to do a deep dive into the second part of the equation––baggage––without venturing into spoiler territory, but I can say that The Inheritance Games also makes good use of the past. Tightly-controlled reveals are the key here: awful things are hinted at by supporting characters with motives to do so, and when the truth unravels, it feels tautly like it absolutely had to. When it implicates the Hawthorne brothers (there are four in total, but I mean the love triangle two in particular), blame is difficult to strictly assign, allowing Barnes to draw out the gray area between total trust and total caution. This all keeps an extra component of ambiguity fresh in the romantic subplot where, otherwise, by the natural course of the main plot, Avery’s suspicion of them both––at least in the killing-for-the-inheritance sense––has waned.

But, as all good things come with a caveat, so too does the brilliance of this subplot give way to a steady but lacking central suspense. Once assassination attempts enter the picture, the bait-and-switch is thoughtful (and, taken as a commentary, perhaps even incisive), but the actual culprit feels a little haphazard. The character in question has fairly limited page time, doesn’t challenge any of the reader’s assumptions when named as the guilty party, and their ending dampens the tension, rather than seeing it to a dynamic conclusion.

The same goes for the one major definitive answer we get about the real intentions of Avery’s mysterious benefactor. Emotionally, what we learn should probably be more devastating than it is, especially with Avery having come all this way for an explanation that can give her a sense of certainty, but Barnes undermines the moment with brevity, and that aspect of Avery’s wants as a character is left hanging in an otherwise well-rounded portrayal.

I must admit, though: despite all of this, I’m still hooked. If the chemistry happens to click for you, The Inheritance Games is just riotously fun even with its weak points, and sometimes, that’s the strongest hand you can play.


Thank you so much for reading! Have you read The Inheritance Games? Which side of the love triangle are you on? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕

Author: Pippin Hart

Pippin Hart read Jane Eyre when she was sixteen, and will spend the rest of her life chasing the high.

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