Bear with me, please, because The End Games is one of those novels with a twist fairly early on that makes reviewing the book without spoilers difficult. Still, I shall endeavor to sum up my basic thoughts while not revealing anything not mentioned in the blurb. T. Michael Martin's debut is a very strange book in pretty much every way: the plot, the characters, and, most significantly, stylistically. All of this add up to distinguish the novel from other post-apocalyptics that take on the concept of an outbreak that turns human into monsters.
The End Games reads most like a zombie novel, though the Bellows are certainly not like the average zombies, except that they too are best taken out with a head shot, and that they were once human. The Bellows manage to be eerier. Rather than moaning like zombies generally do, the Bellows are like echoes, repeating any words they hear in a long shout. Of course, this is nice since you can hear them coming, but also freaking scary when you realize they're surrounding your position, and, since they're so loud, they're probably going to draw more Bellows to your position. In case that's not bad enough, they're evolving into something much worse.
What I think Martin does best here is the horror aspect. The End Games is pretty frightening, offering gore, monsters, battles, and psychological terror. Michael, a teen, and his five year old brother, Patrick, are trying to survive, to find a Safe Zone with other survivors, in this hellish Game. Getting through an apocalypse on your own would be bad enough but with a kid in tow? Yikes! When they do finally encounter other people, it's very hard to know who to trust and who's crazy, including with the brothers. All of this kept me engaged and curious.
There's a strong focus on family in The End Games, which I greatly appreciate. Michael is an amazing brother. He takes such good care of Patrick, not resenting him for making survival more difficult. In fact, Michael needs Patrick just as much, because he has to keep it together for Patrick, keep hope and motivation.
T. Michael Martin uses a very interesting storytelling method. The End Games is written almost like a reality show about a particular character. The narration is third person limited, following Michael. However, the narrator seems at times to interact with Michael, adding to the video game feel of the tale in what is a slightly discomfiting but powerful technique. Here are some examples of that:
"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."
"Keep going. You're scared, that's true, but."
In the first example, a lot of Martin's style is illustrated. Michael's thoughts are included throughout in italics, though whispers are as well and sometimes emphasis as shown here. Michael and a couple other characters speak in some sort of strange dialect and occasionally hold out words, like with that last "dang." You can also see the way the narrator just answered his question, and he in turn responded to that. Even more interesting, the narrator actually emulates Michael's way of speaking/thinking; the bulk of the narration is in standard American dialect. In the second, the narrator eggs Michael on, urging him not to give up in a desperate situation. While I do think this writing style is largely effective, it's very odd and will be disconcerting to some readers, especially the unidentifiable dialect used by the brothers.
What Left Me Wanting More:
Where The End Games left me cold was the characters. I don't care much about anyone. Of them all, Michael is the most likable, due to his sweet affection for his brother. However, Patrick actually creeps me out a lot. I kept expecting him to turn out to be some sort of new monster or something, because I found him that freaky. Spoiler: he's not. I couldn't care about the half-hearted romance or the deaths of any of the characters either. More time is spent on developing the creepiness than on the characters.
The Final Verdict:
The End Games will be a great read for those who love horror tales, and new creepy monsters. Those who take an interest in unique storytelling will also want to check out this quirky debut.