Despite Killer Instinct’s copyright date of 2014, Jennifer Lynn Barnes wrote the first chapter in such a way as to invoke an image from a 1980’s movie or sitcom. All five teen prodigies introduced in Barnes’ first novel of the series The Naturals are back and rowdier than before. Their knack for getting into trouble also seems to escalate as Cassie and the others learn of the most recent serial killer case that seems to center around Dean’s father Daniel Redding who is an imprisoned serial killer. The emotional roller coaster I experienced in reading this second novel in the series was more drastic and heart-wrenching than what I experienced during the first book. All the same, I needed to finish this second book. I will briefly summarize and analyze Killer Instinct and allow my reader to decide whether or not they will join in on the ride.
Killer Instinct – The Summary
The exceptionally talented, smiling teens soon find reason to drop their grins. Cassie, Michael, Lia, Sloane, and Dean have taken six weeks of leisure, enjoying each other’s company and solving an occasional cold case, since their incident with Agent Locke. The teenagers are just beginning to play a game of strip poker when Agent Sterling, daughter of Director Sterling and ex-wife of Agent Briggs, strides through the front door. Within the next several hours, the teen prodigies have a whole new set of rules to follow under an agent who firmly believes in dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.
Cassie and Michael are thrown together while studying to pass their GEDs. During one such session, the reader learns that Cassie is trying to simply remain friends with both Michael and Dean, but Michael pushes for Cassie to make a decision. Unlike Michael, Dean places Cassie on a level above himself and tries to keep her away, thinking he doesn’t deserve Cassie. Both young men are walking tragedies, but where one uses charm and wit to hide it, the other has a tendency to hide and brood. Cassie, who walks around with her heart on her sleeve, has a tough decision to make.
The larger issue at hand is for the special agents to try to keep the teens tucked away at the house, safe and sound, while they investigate their current local case. Being the guardians of prodigies proves to be difficult as the teens pick up on clues and easily maneuver their way into the current cases. The first time Lia, Michael, and Cassie sneak out of the house, they manage to meet vital people to the case at a university party. Two days later, Dean is forced to help during an interrogation of his imprisoned father, while Agent Sterling forces the truth from Cassie of her outing the other night.
All hell breaks loose, and Cassie finds herself at the receiving end of everyone’s anger and frustration. Feelings are hurt. Progress in relationships seem to backtrack. But after a round of apologies and revealed hopes and feelings, things appear to be coming back together again…until the body count begins coming in. Cassie takes a second outing with Dean and Michael, but their unwanted appearances in Dean’s small hometown results in two filed police reports. Cassie then finds herself under house arrest.
In the end, the teen prodigies put their minds to work and accurately pinpoint the murderer before the body count racks to impossibly high numbers. When the FBI thinks the case is over, an unexpected twist places Cassie’s and Agent Sterling’s lives in danger. Looking the serial killer in the eye, Cassie thinks of her new family with one particular individual in mind. She wishes she had told him how she felt. She wishes she had a more active role in saving lives. But wishes sometimes have an odd way of coming true.
Killer Instinct – The Analysis
After reading the first chapter, my first reaction was disappointment. I expected more of a teen angst novel than a story with so many emotional attacks and pain. And while there were plenty of unspoken feelings and past traumas coming to light, it wasn’t all about the relationships between the teens. When Agent Sterling faced Cassie, I nearly came to tears. Maybe Barnes’ writing will show my reader why:
“You have a problem with this program.” I paused. “I don’t know why you even took this job. You have a problem with what Briggs is doing here, and you have a problem with me.”
I expected her to deny it. She surprised me. “My problem with you,” she said, enunciating each word, “is that you don’t do what you’re told. All the instincts in the world are worthless if you can’t work within the system. Briggs never understood that, and neither do you.”
“You’re talking about what happened last summer.” I didn’t want to be having this conversation, but there was no way out. I couldn’t get out of the car. I couldn’t get away from her assessing stare. “I get it. Dean got hurt. Michael got hurt. Because of me.”
Killer Instinct, p. 152
“Where were you last night?” Agent Sterling asked again. I didn’t answer her. “Last summer, you and your friends hacked a secured drive and read through the case files for no reason, as far as I can tell, other than the fact that you were bored. Even after Briggs warned you to back off, you had no intention of doing it. Eventually, the killer made contact.” She didn’t give me time to recover from that brutal recitation of events. “You wanted in on the case. Your Agent Locke obliged.”
Agents Sterling and Briggs verbally bludgeoned Cassie. Dean provided her—and everyone else around him—with the cold shoulder. Even Sloane, who had been left out in her friends’ adventures, was a little upset with Cassie. After reading the chapters covering these verbal spats, I had a massive headache. The personal anguish was simply too much.
At the same time, however, I was compelled to keep reading. Barnes had me up until well past midnight, straining my eyes into the early morning hours just so I could ensure Cassie would be okay. Now that I’ve finished the novel, I wholeheartedly believe Barnes knows how to get into the minds of her readers. Barnes didn’t major in Creative Writing, after all. She studied the human mind. And I would dare say that she has a better understanding of it than many writers in America today.
As for the romance, I can understand why Cassie chose the one young man, but I’m heartbroken for the other. To see how the young man took the news reminded me very much of how I had reacted when I lost a young man in the game of Love and War. I can only hope that he will find his happy ever after.
With the exception of the rejected young man, Cassie was able to fix every relationship. She and Agent Sterling came to an understanding of each other, and Lia started behaving halfway decently toward Cassie. Like the first novel in The Naturals series, I give this young adult novel an 8/10. The two points deducted are for my headache from the arguments and my heartache for the young man with the broken heart. Overall, this book is another compelling read and a great sequel to the first.