The Venue (T. J. Payne) [2020]

Based on a relatively simple idea, Battle Royale at a wedding, and sporting an excellent cover image I was immediately taken in by T. J. Paynes The Venue: A Wedding Novel; eagerly downloading the audiobook and clearing my schedule to settle down to it.

After a brief – and unsettling – prologue between a couple and their wedding programmer we are introduced to Amy, one of their prospective guests as she receives her invitation to their wedding; an all expense paid trip to a secluded European venue.

Seeing it as perhaps the remedy to her own woes with her girlfriend Amy sends an RSVP, but not without reservation; she remembers the groom, an old school friend, and deep down she knows something is is wrong. She hadn’t heard from the man, Caleb, is many years and though they did not part under poor circumstances she cannot help but feel the invitation carries with it a sinister meaning.

Which of course it does.

Arriving at the venue under a veil of secrecy with her parents and girlfriend in tow Amy discovers the venue to be a spectacular mountain retreat, filled with every amenity, and the sheer extravagance of it fills her with growing dread; and when the wedding begins she finds things far worse than she had imagined.

T. J. Payne’s The Venue: A Wedding Novel begins swiftly and by the time the guests arrive at the venue the reader knows exactly what they are getting themselves into. What erupts is laden with considerable violence, but there is a comic-book feel to the proceedings that never really allows the violence to escape parody and as a result affect the reader in a visceral way.

Party this may be due to the constant comic-cutaways of venue staff throwing around one-liners, but it may also be due to the selective cluelessness of the guests as they conveniently (for the story at least) forget that there’s a crossbow sat on the floor nearby, or that 80% proof alcohol can be used as a Molotov cocktail.

Throughout the story I found myself more and more irritated by the obvious solutions the guests were missing, not to mention the suspense killing one-liners from the staff, and though the story tumbled along at quite a pace and there was little time to get bored with the story I found these irritations steadily built a wall between the book and my enjoyment of it.

The only noticeable character arc was that of the villain, Caleb, as he realises everything isn’t quite what he believed it to be; and ultimately because of this he was the one character who I grew any level of sympathy for. I can’t say I approved of his solutions (I’ll go out on a limb here and say that mass murder isn’t good) but at least I understood his reasoning, petty as it was, for his actions.

Amy was a different matter. I have to stress that Amy is not a bad person, or a bad character, just an unremarkable one and as such no more worthy of my time than any of the other minor characters littered around the book. We never really learn why there was a rift between her and her girlfriend, there are no inner battles for Amy to overcome and no memories that weigh on her; she just seems to react to the world around her and is no more or less a mistress of her own destiny than anyone else.

Things continues much this way throughout the book until the last fifty pages or so where there is a shift that struck me as jarring and improbable. Needless to say I shall not go too deeply into this as it would be a major spoiler to those who are intrigued by this book and wish to read it; but I will say that I found the books ending to be lacking in substance and though it is dramatic and fulfilling in an action sense, I felt that none of that characters had taken anything life-building or life-affirming from the experience.

Your enjoyment of The Venue will depend, in my view, in how deeply you like to ponder on what you read. A more casual reader will enjoy the book a great deal; for them it’ll be a rip-roaring, blood-soaked roller-coaster, but if you’re a reader who prefers to ruminate on character or theme you’ll quickly find yourself sidelined by unintended irritations that only really present themselves because in many ways The Venue is just so very good!

In a lesser book a lot of my irritations would’ve been par-for-the-course but The Venue is in so many ways well written and well conceived. What it lacks is an over-arching theme or arc that brings everything together, as well as a more stringent control on the tone-deaf humour, and characters who aren’t quite so story-dependant in their cluelessness .

After all this you might be surprised to find that I recommend T. J. Payne’s The Venue: A Wedding Novel as there’s every likelihood that you’ll see none of the issues I saw while reading the book, and I genuinely hope this to be the case. Ultimately the books positives outweigh its negatives, especially for those who are reading purely for entertainment and want nothing more than a fast roller-coaster.

I suppose what haunts me a little with The Venue is that I think there’s a better book in the idea and I’d have loved to see a draft or two down the line from this one; because I think that would have been one really exceptional read.

Last thing I’ll say is that I rarely seen a horror novel presented so nicely. I mentioned the great cover artwork, simple and classy, but the audiobook has a great narrator in the shape of P. J. Morgan, who moves us through the seven and a half hour running time without a step wrong. If you prefer your books in an audio format I’d say that she was a considerable asset to my enjoyment of the book and if T. J. Payne does an extra draft or two of the next book, and then hires P. J. Morgan to finish off the work on audio I’m likely to click the “buy” button.

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