REVIEW: The Sacrifice Box by Martin Stewart

The Sacrifice Box by Martin Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Length: 368 pages

Release date: 11 January 2018

Amazon UK

Sep, Arkle, Mack, Lamb and Hadley: five friends thrown together one hot, sultry summer. When they discover an ancient stone box hidden in the forest, they decide to each make a sacrifice: something special to them, committed to the box for ever. And they make a pact: they will never return to the box at night; they’ll never visit it alone; and they’ll never take back their offerings.

Four years later, the gang have drifted apart. Then a series of strange and terrifying events take place, and Sep and his friends understand that one of them has broken the pact.

As their sacrifices haunt them with increased violence and hunger, they realise that they are not the first children to have found the box in their town’s history. And ultimately, the box may want the greatest sacrifice of all: one of them.

“They spoke the words–the rules of the sacrifice.
‘Never come to the box alone,’ they said, hands unmoving.
‘Never open it after dark,’ they said, fingers joined together.
‘Never take back your sacrifice,’ they finished–then let go.”

Five friends reuniting after four years, having broken the three vows they made to each other. Two timelines of children called by the sacrifice box, and one curse that threatens to destroy them all. This is a chilling, creepy and atmospheric thriller. It takes a while to build up, but once it does, it’s hard to put down. The Sacrifice Box may be a supernatural horror novel, but what it sets apart from B-movie territory is Martin Stewart’s commitment to writing a story that is really about the power of friendship.

At the heart of the story is the strongest squad goals I’ve read in a couple months. Seriously, the band of misfits forced together by circumstance has rarely had such dynamic chemistry as they do in The Sacrifice Box. I get a few Breakfast Club vibes from the group; in fact, you could easily pitch the whole book as One of Us Is Lying meets Stranger Things. Not only do they have catchy and fitting nicknames, Sep, Hadley, Mack, Arkle and Lamb are bloody awesome when they stop the bickering long enough to work together. (Looks like having to fight for your lives against crazy reanimated dolls can break the barriers of high school hierarchy after all.)

I’ll start with Sep. September “Sep” Hope is my spirit animal–your standard nerdy outcast who’s also deaf in one ear, until he’s not. Sep is the good kid with bright academic prospects who’s going to head off his small town island to engineering college, but he’s also just sweet in general. I couldn’t dislike him if I tried, especially not with everything that he goes through in the book. Lamb is a badass field hockey player and the practical tactician of the group, the closest thing you’ll get to an action hero(ine). Arkle’s obliviousness doesn’t stop him from being endearing. Mack, I swear, will never stop teasing Sep about Hadley’s geek-on for him. And Hadley is just lowkey awesome as the quiet smart girl with a backbone of steel.

Can you tell that I adore them all? Because I really do. They’re 15-year-olds thrown into a nightmare situation, and every one of them learns something from going through the ordeal. Their personalities are so lucidly filled out, it feels like the squad could be real people. I’m not saying that all the deadly curse stuff was good, but my favourite horror novels are those where the protagonist(s) walk through the fire figuratively and emerge as better people. The Sacrifice Box, well, ticks that box.

There’s a sweet romance in both senses of the word; it’s a lovely coming-of-age relationship that doesn’t extend past one perfectly timed kiss. Nonetheless, it manages to be more interesting and have more chemistry than a good deal of considerably more graphic YA novels, which again reflects the strength of the characters. Honestly, the violence in this book is more mature. I freely admit that I would probably pass out a few times, and hence get killed, if I were subjected to the near-death experiences that Sep and his friends are. They clearly have higher pain thresholds than I do.

Stewart handles the POV switches fairly well–most of the novel is narrated from Sep’s perspective, but this being a horror book with the usual trappings of the genre, there are a fair few cut aways to peripheral characters, almost always ending in some sort of jump scare and/or fade to black. There are quite a few such ambiguous scenes that leave the fate of certain characters up in the air until they next appear or their body is found (yes, there are deaths in this book). The large size of the cast occasionally creates confusion–you’ll need a good memory to keep track of who’s who at all times–but for the most part it sorts itself out a couple paragraphs later.

A last awesome thing is the 80s vibe. It’s strong, and it’s good stuff. We’ve got Chernobyl, the Cold War, Halley’s Comet and Bowie mixtapes, the whole deal. The 80s is a setting that works for The Sacrifice Box, much better than I suspect the present day would. Stewart capitalises fully on the cultural atmosphere to strike a great balance between uncertainty and hope.

*Thanks to Penguin Random House UK Children’s and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*

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