The Collective walks a fine line between its genuinely creepy plot and the credulity of its characters. It’s chilling and mostly avoids predictability, but a last-minute plot twist and the heroine’s inability to do a bit of deep thinking before trying to figure out how the proverbial sausage is made makes the ending a strained mess.
Camille Gardner is the walking wounded. The death of her fifteen-year-old daughter Emily at a frat party left her stunned and horrified. Emily had been drugged, raped and beaten, dragged into the woods behind the frat house and left for dead – clinging to life for three days before dying of her wounds and hypothermia. This and the lack of justice for Emily has devastated Camille to the point where nothing matters more than getting revenge on the boy she blames for Emily’s death, even though five years have passed. Emily’s reputation for partying and underage drinking was dragged through the mud during the trial.
Harris Blanchard is young, privileged, elite and set for a life of joy. He claims he didn’t rape or kill Emily, but that they had consensual sex, and she wandered drunkenly off with another boy who was responsible for the violence – a boy he could not identify. Camille would do anything to take that bright future away from Blanchard, and finds herself the subject of a viral video after she follows him to an elite gathering at an exclusive club which is giving him a humanitarian award, and calls him a murderer in public.
After being arrested and processed at the local precinct, Camille is approached by a mysterious woman, who informs her of the existence of a circle of women called Niobe who gather on the dark web server. They are known as The Collective, and they are dedicated to claiming revenge on those who have harmed their children. After sharing her story in the chatroom, Camille receives an anonymous DM from someone offering the name of the man who killed her daughter. She is given a set of instructions and told to fulfill them without question – this is just “part of a whole.” Convincing herself that this is all a harmless game, and slowly being indoctrinated by the seductive powers of revenge, Camille finds out too late that these people do not simply like talking about getting revenge on the people who killed their children – they like killing others in revenge. Camille is in deep – will she become one of them for good or will she decide to unmask them all?
The Collective loses steam right around the midway point, after a major character is done for and the book has to keep paddling for plot. I had a hard time buying that Camille doesn’t understand what she’s doing for the first half of the book and then that she continues to put herself in positions which make her a target for those she’s upset. As a character, she feels as though she’s mainly directed by her own curiosity, but since she’s single-mindedly driven herself to this point over the first half of the book, who really cares?
Yet the book maintains an intense atmosphere that spellbinds – at least in the first half or so, and the author is absolutely successful in capturing the way cults and niche online communities prey upon the vulnerable. I was see-sawing between a C+ and a B- for a very long time and in the end that tense atmosphere resulted in me giving this one a low-end B. But close the book before The Collective reaches its final pages; you’ll leave with a deeper sense of satisfaction.