Dang, she’s so cool.
Dang, don’t think that.
Because of on account of this being the most horrible time to get a crush on a girl.
Oh. Right. Daaaang.
On Halloween, the world ends.
Michael and his younger brother Patrick have been on the run for weeks, following the rules of “the Game” and evading the “bellows” who threaten to tear the flesh from their bones. A shadowy Game Master gives Michael missions and clues on how to navigate the post-apocalyptic world, with the ultimate goal of getting to the “Safe Zone”—if Michael can follow instructions and clear every level, he and Patrick just might make it through this nightmare alive.
Of course nothing is what it seems and there are twists aplenty in this apocalyptic scenario. When Michael and Patrick find other survivors, the promise of safety seems imminent—but “the Game” has changed. The bellows are evolving. And other humans might be the salvation or the undoing of Michael and Patrick.
The debut novel from T. Michael Martin (and inspired by his relationship with the author’s own brother, who is named Patrick in real life), The End Games has a great premise. Imagine the zombie apocalypse, but in the context of a real life, first person shooter video game. Imagine, if you will, Resident Evil 4 and that annoying stage in the game where you (Leon) have to protect the President’s daughter (Ashley) from being eviscerated by parasitic zombies or carried off by zealot priests. That’s almost-kinda-sorta what The End Games aims for...but misses, miserably. Unfortunately, in The End Games, Michael is no Leon. The book lacks the excitement of an action-packed zombie novel (or game, like the aforementioned RE4), while also missing the mark in terms of emotional engagement or other thematic gravitas.
In short: The End Games isn’t a very good book.
On a basic level, the novel’s hackneyed voice feels very much like an older author attempting and failing to capture the syntax and colloquialisms of a 17-year-old boy, including the gem of a quote that starts off this review (the one with all the daaaangs). Not to mention plenty of other muddled, misapplied phrases like: “HEYYYYY, YOU CRAZY MUTHAFUGGING WORLD, YOU JUST GOT P’OWNED!” Or ridiculous, facepalm-worthy handwritten journal entries, such as: “Last nite, way way more Bellows. 80+? Why? Never grouped together B4. One-time deal? (Plz?) Fire EXTREMELY good on Bellows. Hate it. Theory about light/eyes = woot. [...]P.S. I am an awesome shot ;) P.P.S. BUT SRSLY: AWESOME.”
Painfully bad writing aside, The End Games also fails on a storytelling level with predictable twists and a paint-by-numbers zombie plot (complete with Bad Soldiers, Religious Zealots and Impossible Cures). There are plot holes which are never resolved—e.g. is Michael precognitive??? WHAT is with the blood rush breathing and feeling mantra?—a trite romance and a shocking dearth of actual zombies. The interactions between characters and dialogue feels forced and stilted, and character reactions never actually make sense.
Really, the only thing that kept me reading the book through to the end was the relationship between half-brothers Michael and Patrick. While the back story for this pair of brothers falls into cliche territory, the love that Michael has for his younger brother and his desire to protect Patrick—even at great cost to Patrick himself— is the book’s emotional heart and soul. I appreciated this powerful, genuine love at the core of The End Games. Unfortunately, that one kernel of promise is not enough to salvage the mess that is the rest of the book. Or, in the forced parlance of young Michael, daaang, Epic Fail, dude.
In Book Smugglerish, an unimpressed 4 out of 10.
Brain-slurpin’ Bone-Crunchin’ Recommended Zombie Reads
While The End Games failed to impress, there are plenty of other fantastic zombie books out there. Yeah, everyone knows about World War Z and The Walking Dead, but here are some recommended—and some unexpected—zombie books, if you’re in the mood for the undead with a little more bite:
1. Feed (Newsflesh Trilogy) by Mira Grant: Zombies, pathology, politics and blogging. Feed is the best, but it’s worth reading them all.
2. The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Forest of Hands and Teeth trilogy) by Carrie Ryan: Think of The Village with actual zombies. This is an elegiac, powerful and heartbreaking trilogy.
3. This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers:Teenagers hole up in a high school to wait out the zombie apocalypse. Enough said.
4. Married with Zombies (Living with the Dead series) by Jesse Peterssen: A snarky couple on the verge of divorce finds a way to reconnect when the dead rise. Very funny stuff.
5. Working Stiff (Revivalist series) by Rachel Caine: Read for a new type of zombie unlike any other on this list.
6. Zombie Blondes by Brian James: Campy B-movie in book form, starring evil cheerleaders with a hunger for braaaaains.
7. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion: Beautifully written and unexpectedly romantic (and the movie isn’t bad, either).
8. Dust by Joan Frances Turner: Violent, elegant and surprising; a tale of what it means to be a zombie, from the zombie’s perspective.
9. Dying to Live (Dying to Live series) by Kim Paffenroth: A philosophical, even theological examination of the walking dead.
10. Generation Dead (Generation Dead series) by Daniel Waters: Surprisingly political and very smart YA series starring a very different type of zombie (that is, ‘differently biotic’) and featuring an entirely unique zombie mythos.
 This is actually far more similar to certain parts of The End Games than you think. Right down to the zealot priests. Seriously.