At a length of 576 pages, this novel flew by rather quickly for me. The one thing that caught my attention and created suspense for me was the characterization in this story Takami has a knack for writing strong, lovable characters, and I had to keep reading to find out what happened to each of them. Of course, in a story like this, the reader has to be careful which characters they fall for because no one is truly safe. I would meet a character in one chapter, begin to care about him or her, and by the end of the chapter, watch them die in some brutal fashion. Among my favorites were Shuya Nanahara (protagonist, guitar player, rock music lover, and loyal friend), Yoshitoki Kuninobu (Shuya’s best friend), Hiroki Sugimura (loving, loyal, romantic, good friend of Shuya’s)¸Shinji Mimura (basketball star, talented hacker, smart, good friend of Shuya’s), and Shogo Kawada (quiet, badass, loyal and clever). Very few of the girls impressed me much, although I thought Mitsuko Souma was as intriguing as she was evil, Takako Chigusa was awesome for fighting until the very end, and Yukie Utsumi was a sweetheart. I thought Noriko Nakagawa was a nice girl, but her character really didn’t wow me – and since she is one of the leads, I felt she should have been a bit more interesting.
There were times when the book was hard to read because I knew most of my favorite characters weren’t going to make it out alive, if any did at all. I had hopes that a good sized group would make it out alive, but knew that was very unlikely to happen. All I could do was read through the chapters and hope for the best. None of these kids deserved to be thrown into such a perverse game, and I wanted as many to survive as possible.
The game is a government program conducted by the fascist dictatorship of the Republic of Greater East Asia. What was once Japan has been replaced with this new “republic” and a government who will kill anyone who dares speak out against it. The students’ teacher fought the decision for their class to be selected and he was killed, any parent who objected faced the same fate. It is up to the kids themselves to figure out a way to survive, and many have a few tricks up their sleeves. Shinji and Shogo both had excellent ideas, if only their two groups could have united, the game wouldn’t have stood a chance.
The book packs a lot of social commentary on the impact of fear. It discusses how the game is used to scare the public and keep the citizens docile, and also the effect fear has on those trying to survive in a life or death situation. It shows the paranoia that envelops all of those involved and the fear of trusting anyone – for letting your guard down to the wrong person could cost you your life. It also shows the repercussions of such fear, such as an attempted poisoning of one character leading to the death of another, and a violent chain-reaction of death following suit.
While the characterization is excellent, the writing itself isn’t always good. This could be due to things being lost in translation, as this was originally a Japanese text. The twist revelation about Shogo was predictable, there were a few dangling modifiers and grammatical errors, and Kazuo is harder to kill than Jason Voorhees. At first I found this believable because the kid has a vast amount of martial arts training, but after a while, it got ridiculous. He was too smart, too quick, and too irritating. After a while, it seemed like the guy was everywhere, preying upon my beloved characters. I was begging someone to kill him already.
The ending is very satisfying, despite not all of my favorite characters surviving. Many died heroes or having completed what they set out to do before time ran out. I only wish there were a certain answer for the survivors – will they ever be at peace, or will they always be running from their government?
Overall, a great suspenseful novel with very likable characters – ones you can’t help but love even though you know you’re probably going to lose them. It’s definitely a brutal but interesting and worthwhile read.