I love epigraphs. You know those one-ish sentence quotes at the beginning of a book? Not all books have them, but the ones that do have a special place in my heart. The End Games by T. Michael Martin is one of those books—it has TWO epigraphs! Epigraph 1) I shall tell you a great secret, my friend. Do not wait for the last judgment, it takes place every day. –Albert Camus. Pretty good right? Even better though: Epigraph 2) Everything not saved will be lost. –Nintendo “Quit Screen” message. This mix of philosopher wisdom and video game pop culture pretty perfectly sums up the zombie infested post-apocalyptic world of The End Games. Yes, my friends, another, but worthwhile, zombie story.
The book tosses you immediately into the action as the main character Michael wakes up around a campfire and his 5 year old brother Patrick is not sleeping beside him and is nowhere to be seen. These brothers are on no camping trip, though, they’ve been on the road for weeks since the arrival of the Bellows and the END OF THE WORLD. “Bellows” is the first clue you are getting into a pretty good zombie story. The author sticks with the unspoken rule not to call zombies “zombies”, using the name Bellows instead, for the terrifying way they echo everything they hear, creating an audio landscape of screams, pleas, and last words. When Michael calls out his brother’s name, that’s what the Bellows begin to echo: “PAAAAAAATTTTRIIIIICKKK!”—in chill-inducing vividness.
Non-spoiler alert: In the first few pages, Michael grabs Patrick and they high tail it out of there, but that close call leads to an unceasing storm of others, as they try and make their way to the safe place described by the Game Master. This is where epigraph #2 (the Nintendo quit screen quote) comes in. Michael keeps talking about a Game Master. Apparently the boys are stuck in some kind of game? Is the whole thing a computer game? Is this virtual reality? Are they in some sort of new and perverse Hunger Games? All zombie narratives have an element of unreality, but not being able to determine whether the Bellows are all a game and will disappear soon (which is every characters wish in a zombie narrative) adds an added element of surreal-ness. Are the boys going to be able to escape from it all? Will it be over soon? CAN it be over soon? Even better than that though, the use of gaming as a motif really highlights the undercurrent of how we live our own lives. Would we approach our lives more strategically if we treated it more like a game? Or are our lives stuck in technology, like they are stuck in “The Game”?
This is where epigraph #1 comes in—“Do not wait for the last judgment, it takes place every day.” Wait, I have to fight off Bellow/zombies every DAY?! Well, no, but seriously, how do you live your life? This is the real question of a zombie story—how do you keep (or live) your humanity? By putting humans in the most extreme circumstances you see who they truly are, and The End Games is no different in posing questions about what is good in a world gone bad.
Harper Collins calls The End Games “John Green meets Stephen King”. I don’t know if I’d take it as far as John Green, but that is the style of writing thrown into a desperate world, and John Green himself calls it “A stunningly intelligent, thrilling story about family and love that just happens to include some zombies.” I can agree with that. In the end, I really found The End Games to be a unique end-of-world read. A handful of times I had no idea where the story was going, which was slightly alienating and aimless, but I also love it when I can’t predict what will happen next in a book, and this one definitely fits that bill. If you like not knowing how a story will end, and are looking for a new spin in a genre that seems to be all the same, give The End Games a try. And be sure to ask yourself: what kind of epigraph would YOU give yourself at “the last judgment”?
Reviewed by GiGi, CLP-Brookline