In The Lost, Natasha Preston writes another chilling YA tale, this time about eleven missing teens – and the one girl who might just defeat their captor.
Eleven teenagers disappeared from in and around Mauveton, Ohio in the late spring before seventeen-year-old Piper and Hazel’s senior year of high school. Mystery and crime obsessed Piper, following the case with interest, doesn’t think these kids have run away from home – as the police and media insist – but believes something more sinister is afoot. Hazel is more skeptical, but when Piper points out that it’s only a matter of time before one of their own friends disappears, she reluctantly agrees to meet at the lake – a local and popular hang-out for teenagers – to find out what’s going on by talking with the friends of the most recently missing member of the group.
When Piper draws the interest of blond, handsome, twenty-one-year-old med-student Caleb, she’s both flattered and suspicious of his attention. Not suspicious enough, though, to avoid accepting a ride from Luke and his friend, Owen, back from the lake. The second Caleb flicks the car door locks closed, Piper and Hazel begin to discover some very harsh truths about the two men and their motives. Owen and Caleb and their mystery third friend aren’t kind, handsome men, and their courtly flirtation is a cover – they’re sociopaths. They’re the ones who’ve been kidnapping teenagers and stashed them in a retrofitted home on a plot of land Caleb’s family owns, a building in which them men have built a maze in which they conduct nonstop social and psychological experiments, something they call “the game”. Hazel and Piper soon realize that only four of the teenagers who’ve been kidnapped are still alive, the others having failed the psychological tests of rooms 1-5, and the physical tests of room zero. If Hazel and Piper don’t want to share their fates and save the lives of the others, they’re going to have to use their brains, their skills, and their fearlessness to survive the gauntlet.
The Lost left me divided. On one hand, it does a good job of building up a frightening, havoc-filled sense of doom and tension. Piper is a smart heroine; something of a Velma Dinkley thrown into the chaos of The Cube. You will be thoroughly absorbed in the story, in Piper’s plight as she develops a close friendship with Theo, a fellow captive, and tries to keep Hazel’s spirits up. Watching the six remaining kidnap victims form a kind of family and a protective layer against the machinations of Caleb and Owen was well done and made them easy to root for and sympathize with. The final twist, when it arrives, is quite the doozy.
The tension in the situation, and Piper’s consuming fear – which she transforms into bravery – echo throughout the text, and the mistakes Piper makes – in getting in the men’s car, in going to the lake without a way back – make sense when you remember she’s seventeen.
On the other hand, there isn’t a lot of originality to be had. There are notes of The Hunger Games and Saw and even House of 1,000 Corpses laced throughout the proceedings. In its weakest moments, the peanut-crunching voyeuristic portrayal of the trauma dished out to the suffering teenagers are all that holds the novel together, and sometimes that portrayal falls on the border of torture porn. But it’s the end of the novel, with its shift to the cheeseball PoV of Our Secret Villain and the author’s choice to have Our Heroine do what she does that causes the book to fall apart completely. Ultimately, all but one of the villains are cardboard cutout sadists – choosing to throw meat on their bones within the last fifty pages of the book is too little, too late. Our sympathies are too firmly with the victims to make the final leap into Rob Zombie-style villain worship.
For the early parts of the book and its tender-tough midpoint, The Lost works. Had it ended differently, it would have earned an unreserved recommendation, but as it is, it’s several steps away.