The Mediocrity of the Thriller Genre

Thrillers are arguably my favorite genre to read. According to TheStoryGraph, I almost exclusively read fast-paced books that are adventurous, mysterious, and dark. I love a good twist, something truly shocking that keeps me on my toes.

The problem is that thrillers are so easy to come by these days. Remember when The Hunger Games came out? Young adult dystopian novels exploded. Everyone was coming out with their own stories in the same genre, often with the same plot: a trilogy with world-building in the first book, the second was mostly filler to get to the third, and the third was where the group of disbanded teenagers overthrew the government. The days of dystopian stories are over, and now it’s trendy to write thrillers.

What winds up happening is that a lot of books gets marketed and sold as thrillers when they aren’t truly thrillers. Publishers know they can reach a higher demographic that way, and obviously it works for them, because I read plenty of mediocre “thrillers” and leave disappointed because I feel lied to. The other issue is simply that a lot of these thrillers aren’t very well written. But they don’t necessarily need to be, because the general public doesn’t scrutinize the thriller genre. In a time where true crime and the macabre is at its most popular, thrillers are thriving.

I’ve read quite a few thrillers already this year, and what I noticed is that I rated most of them two or three stars. Most of them are not groundbreaking, earth shattering, beautiful storytelling with an insanely gripping plot that kept me up all night. Truthfully, some are so bland that even though I only read them a month ago, I hardly remember the story. So I decided to combine them into one post to review them, since the all genuinely left me unimpressed.

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The Project by Courtney Summers is a new release that follows Lo, a young woman who plans to write a full expose on The Unity Project, a cult that her sister abandoned her for. Secrets are exposed as Lo dives deeper into the cult in her search for answers. Summers promises a book that will “make you reconsider everything you think you know about yourself,” but that never happened for me. There’s nothing reflective in this story at all.

I was expecting a big, shocking story about the gruesome world of cults, but this is your standard cult. There’s a leader who abandons his church, gains a following, and manages to make his cult seem harmless to the outside world. There are some scenes where the cult leader’s true colors come out, but they’re so brief and wrapped up so quickly that you never truly feel frightened.

The main character is unlikable, boring, and weak, so really this is a Team No One book. I hoped she would make better choices, but I didn’t feel sorry for any of her suffering because she ultimately made her bed. And when you can’t root for anyone, it’s difficult to enjoy the book. There are also a lot of loose ends that magically, rapidly get wrapped up within the last 10 pages, and I felt cheated by that. Nothing was fleshed out as well as I hoped it would be.

Overall, 2.5 stars for The Project. I had high hopes because there aren’t many books about cults, but this is definitely way less of a thriller (and not really young adult at all, even though that’s also how it was marketed?) and more of a redemption story.

The Survivors by Jane Harper tells the story of Kiernan, a man who revisits his hometown amidst a woman being murdered, which gives us hints and flashbacks into a similar case twelve years ago, where a storm changed the characters’ lives forever.

There isn’t much worldbuilding in this book, but the character building was phenomenal. There’s so much depth to everyone that you truly feel like they’re real people. You feel their heartache alongside them. I will commend Harper on her ability to write for that.

However, I found the plot to be slow and predictable. There’s a lot of tension between characters, but I never found myself anxious or even genuinely curious to see where the plot was going. When the answers were revealed at the end of the book, I never felt more than a simple “oh, okay” as a response. So 3 stars for The Survivors, because while there’s definitely some strong writing, I didn’t feel that this was truly a mystery/thriller.

Three Little Lies by Laura Marshall is told in alternating flashbacks and perspectives. The first follows Ellen, who is enamored by a new family and their vivacious daughter, Sasha. The girls’ lives are upturned following a harrowing situation. The other chapters follow Ellen 15 years later, who is now requesting help to find Sasha, her best friend and roommate. As the stories unwind, Ellen learns the truth of what happened when they were kids and she struggles to find herself.

Again, this is a book marketed as a thriller with genuinely nothing thrilling about it. There’s no tension, nothing riveting to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. The book does a good job of keeping you guessing, as no one is completely innocent, but it still didn’t scratch that thriller itch for me. This was a predictable plot that’s been done before. I want to be absolutely wowed and shocked by the giant reveal at the end. Instead, I shrugged, put it back on my shelf, and found something more captivating. Another 2.5 star rating.

Girl A by Abigail Dean sounded so promising. Also told in alternating flashbacks (a common trope for thrillers), it follows Lex, a girl who grew up in a horribly abusive home and escaped, thus saving her other siblings from the terrors they were forced to endure. In present day, Lex has to reconvene with her long-lost siblings to sort out the affairs of their mother’s death.

The descent into the world of abuse was really well done, in a way that was believable. Lex’s parents were always a little off, but as their world crumbled around them, they began abusing their seven children. Lex is an obviously damaged character, but you can’t help but root for her. The character building and atmosphere of this book were really well done, and ultimately why I gave it 3.5 stars, the highest of these thrillers.

However, I don’t know that I’d consider this a thriller either. Thrillers are meant to be dark, engrossing, and suspenseful. Yes, the scenes in Lex’s childhood were brutal, but there wasn’t much suspense to this story, especially the present-day chapters. This is a not a thrilling mystery. This is a survival story that showcases how each of the characters deal with the aftermath of what they’ve gone through.

That wasn’t necessarily enough to knock down the rating, though. My biggest problem came with the writing itself. Most thrillers, including ones reviewed above, use alternating chapters to jump back into time. Girl A jumped back in time so abruptly, and sometimes so briefly, that it took me a minute to understand what was going on. I also disliked that there wasn’t a real introduction to anyone or anything. Characters who were important in Lex’s life were never introduced, and the reader was tossed into the story expected to figure out who that person was or just accept that they wouldn’t know. World building is such an important aspect of storytelling, and without it there was a lot of unnecessary confusion.

3 thoughts on “The Mediocrity of the Thriller Genre

  1. It’s kind of funny that I like reading thriller books, but I rarely ever rate them higher than three stars. I guess because they are super easy to read and for the most part hold my attention. Great reviews though! I’m kind of on the fence about The Project. It sounds good, but I read Courtney’s book Sadie and it had so much hype and so many people in the blogosphere loved it, but I just didn’t get the hype at all and I think I only gave it two stars or something like that.


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