The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

The Horror, The Horror (review: The End Games by .....)

The End GamesThe End Games
T. Michael Martin
Balzar and Bray 2013

Michael is deep in The Game. Travelling through a desolated America he has only the voice of The Game Master to see him and his five-year-old brother through a country that is only barely recognisable to the final Safe Zone. On this most perilous of journeys, they are continually running from the hellish Bellows, undead creatures who echo the cries of those they pursue. As Michael tries desperately to keep Patrick going, it becomes clear that there is both more and less to The Game than is first apparent and that this new and scary landscape is populated by monsters that are less obviously monstrous than the Bellows. Ultimately, Game or not, Michael has only himself to rely on as he navigates his way to a Safe Zone that may or may not exist.

Michael, while not always easy to like, has an authentic teenage voice. In fact, he’s incredibly well written. Straddling, as he does, the immaturity inherent with his age and the very adult responsibilities he has voluntarily shouldered, he is a fascinating mix of motivation and confusion. His inner monologue is tinged with desperation as he tries to figure out how to survive and also filled with memories of a geeky, nervous, unhappy school life and a home life that has kept him running despite the horrors of the outside world. These memories create in him a lack of confidence but Michael is, in actuality, very capable and focussed. He’s a real survivor and his slow realisation of this is both excruciatingly slow and satisfyingly believable. His relationship with Patrick is extremely well drawn, his understanding of his brother at times almost heart-breaking as is the fact that he embraces the role of parent so willingly and with a real maturity. Conversely  his interactions with Holly highlight the fact that he is, still, a teenage boy who fumbles his way around girls and comes out with utterly ridiculous attempts at flirtation. It’s a clever and delightful paradox and engenders the heart of The End Games with a realness that is occasionally lacking from the rest of the book.

Holly herself is an interesting enough character. While at first she practically shrieks Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she later evolves into something quite different and is as flawed and believable as Michael. Patrick is also well realised as a child who is clearly somewhere on the autistic spectrum trying to understand a no longer understandable world. The Game, for Patrick, provides an absolutely necessary structure to the madness he’s encountering and the fact that The Game cannot last forever provides a sense of dread for readers in that it is unclear what will happen to Patrick should his structured world disappear. As the only real adult in the story, Jopek is a strange mix of Tallahassee from Zombieland and Colonel Kurtz from Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now. Yet this lack of originality doesn't make him any less of an imposing, intimidating figure, if a rather predictable one.

The story of The End Games is almost less important that the way in which it is structured. The idea of The Game is extremely  clever and Michael’s point of view verges on being a stream of consciousness rather than standard he said she said. This gives the story an immediacy that zombie stories often lack. And make no mistake, this is a zombie story yet it is a relatively original one with some pleasing Science in the mix. Particularly interesting is the idea of a mutating virus – one of those ideas which is so perfect that you wonder why no one thought of it before.  However, the story occasionally lacks coherency with aspects of it verging on the surreal rather than the believable.  In particularly, the hot air balloon and especially it’s appearance towards the end of the story made little sense – something that will perhaps have been resolved in the final copy, this review being based on an e-galley.  Finally, there is a fair amount of discussion on God in The End Games.  Such discussion is interesting in an apocalyptic tale but here it felt like sneaky preaching.  While Michael dismisses the idea of God, he still has a mysterious-voice-in-his-head-that-manifests-as-a-deer thing going on that comes across as pretty overt. There's a possibility that the author was trying for genuine philosophy here - I certainly have no idea of his personal beliefs - but it didn't work, coming across as a "message" rather than an idea.  I have no issue with religion, but it all made me a bit uncomfortable.

Despite that, The End Games is accomplished. It’s a zombie world with a twist, a look at family and identity and many, like me, will read it in one sitting before having it lurk in the corners of their mind for days afterwards.  It says a lot that the book’s flaws do not detract from what is ultimately a compelling read and I urge you all to pick it up and decide for yourselves what to make of it.  Then come back and tell me – there is much to discuss!

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. The End Games is available now.  Thank you to the publisher, via Edelweiss, for sending us this title to review.
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