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 💕

What I Read in May

As it’s fast becoming clear that I sadly can’t write a 900-word review of everything I read, I thought it would be nice to start doing wrap-ups, as a way to hammer out my thoughts on each of the books without much fuss. May was pretty good, I’d say. I got 9 books in, bringing my total to 44! Not bad for a sleepy college student 😌

No. 36 | Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

I’ll be the first to admit that Elizabeth Gilbert’s fanciful approach to creativity isn’t for everyone: if it seems heavy-handed to suggest that creativity is the art of bringing forth “the treasures hidden within you,” just wait until she gets to the bit about genius. But Big Magic has been a huge comfort to me over the years, simply because it told me precisely what I needed to hear––that art doesn’t have to mean suffering, that letting go and embracing playfulness is as vital as the work itself––at a time when I insisted on a more punitive model of creativity, with such conviction that it almost extinguished my desire to create altogether. I return to it periodically, as I did at the beginning of this month, and every time, it rings more true.

No. 37 | Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

Tahereh Mafi’s middle-grade follow up to her Shatter Me trilogy follows a girl born entirely without color in a world where all magic depends on it. In search of her long-lost father, she travels through Mafi’s bombastic worldbuilding in the land of Furthermore. By all accounts, this should be a sweeping, whimsical adventure, but its clumsy execution leaves much to be desired: the chatty prose betrays too much, and the logic of Furthermore (the place) falls apart if you so much as poke it. Mafi has some fascinating concepts for magical villages and exciting characters, but they’re all ultimately lost in the fluff.

No. 38 | A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

I love Roshani Chokshi’s gorgeous follow-up to The Star-Touched Queen beyond words. I gushed about it a perhaps-embarrassing amount in my review, but it bears repeating because the month is almost up and the poetry of this book hasn’t yet left me: this is the wondrous, enchanting, tenuous-allies-to-lovers story your heart needs. There are few hungers this tale cannot feed.

No. 39 | The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas

With the villain from The Three Musketeers, Cardinal Richelieu, at its helm, this little-known (and unfinished) spin-off boasts a vast array of interesting side characters and finely-woven intrigues, but Dumas’ pontificating, as well as his expository historical interludes, can get on one’s nerves, especially where it concerns battles, which in this book almost always entail a ten-page summary, sans dialogue, that feels like an eternity. A note: if you feel the need to outwardly apologize to your reader for the hassle of catching them up to speed, you’ve probably gone too far.

No. 40 | The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

This was one of my dad’s favorite books in middle school, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s funny, adventurous, and fronted by a truly lovable ensemble, the likes of which I can’t say I’ve really found since I finished the Percy Jackson series last year. The book isn’t anything new, but it’s familiar in all the right ways. There are plenty of young, unready heroes floating around in children’s fantasy classics, but I can’t say they stick with me quite like Taran does. (I have a review of it here.)

No. 41 | The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Fans of Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy are legion––in fact, it was one in their ranks who compelled me to read this book––but I unfortunately will not be joining them. I enjoyed the worldbuilding, and some of the supporting characters (Vivienne most of all), but Cardan still feels too vague for me to latch onto––a fatal shortcoming for such an important player––and the clumsy integration of contemporary teen life into the fantasy setting fiddled with a stakes in a way that made the most critical dramatic turns ring a bit hollow. It’s nevertheless a promising start, but I hope the drawn-out final third is a fumble that won’t be repeated.

No. 42 | Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

This YA mystery novel follows Daunis Fontaine, a biracial, unenrolled tribal member, as a meth crisis grips her Ojibwe community and she’s tapped to go undercover in an investigation that could prove fatal at worst, and destructive at best. Angeline Boulley’s standout use of science and the deft hand of lived experience (Boulley is also Ojibwe) are the book’s greatest assets, particularly where it concerns the tangled ethics of aiding an institution with a violent past when it comes to Native communities, as Daunis wrestles with the investigation and its potential consequences. Though the pile-up of reversals at the end weakens the book’s conclusion, it’s still an effective thriller overall, best if your tastes are suited to an atmospheric slow-burn, and a healthy dose of hockey.

No. 43 | The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games was all the rage in my fourth-grade classroom. My mom had read it, judged it not too gory, and allowed it into my hands, though there was drama abounding among my classmates about who was and wasn’t allowed to read it, and it seemed like we were all eagerly awaiting the movie the following year. The book is still as fresh and engrossing as ever, owing to Suzanne Collins’ immaculate use of structure, but it’s the commentary, I think, that really stuck with me. Most dystopians afterwards went all in on one idea (which, to be clear, still managed to spawn many favorite books of mine), but it’s a rare joy to see The Hunger Games cover so much, and so well. It loses just a scrap on reread, through a weak climax and a disorienting abundance of flashback, but I can see at a glance how this book made my younger self a reader, and I think I like her choice.

No. 44 | The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James

This book follows Romy Silvers, the daughter of astronauts on an interstellar mission, who has been alone on the ship Infinity after their deaths, with decades to go until planetfall. Though Lauren James’ prose is compulsively readable, and the pages pass quickly, James mismanages a drastic switch in tone and crafts a trite, uninteresting villain, ending the book with a dull thud.