Pages: 576 (+extras)
First published: 1999
First English publication: 26 February 2003
This edition published: 17 November 2009
Aided by the 2000 movie based on it, this is a novel that became an almost instant Cult Classic. Or rather the movie did, I don't actually think that many people have read the novel. Which I find a bit sad, since the novel is in many ways very different to the movie. (As are most novels with a movie based on them.)
The novel doesn't waste time, it isn't long before the setting is established and the action starts. Interestingly, and often ignored, the setting is Alternate History (,the novel is set in 1997), and it is a world that is much more brutal than the one we live in. Takami doesn't shy away from the brutality of the "program" depicted in the book, descriptions of deaths are on level with what you usually find in Horror books.
Adding to the visual descriptions of the deaths are the glimpses we get into the thoughts of both victims and killers. We get really close up to what is going on in a way that makes the impact greater, and that can get uncomfortable at times. You will be thinking about what is happening, these are not Hollywood deaths, but "real" deaths. They get even more real in a way because you get an insight into why a group of schoolchildren do these things, there are some fairly philosophical thoughts on this in the novel.
Paranoia, fear, and distrust pervade the novel. The characters are put in a really extreme situation, one they cannot escape and which effects each one in different ways. There are three characters that are the main focus of the story, but there are lots of short chapters that see things from other individuals point of view. This means that even smaller players gets their thoughts across and leave their mark on the reader.
Takami writes very good characters, and they will get under your skin. Even though the situation they are put in is so extreme as to be almost absurd, the characters remain relatable. I became very invested in the main characters and what they went through, halfway through the book they felt like old friends.
One of the strengths of the book is showing how desperation can lead ordinary people to do extreme acts, there's plenty of that here, and there is no cushioning of that. But the structure of the book explains many of the motives the characters have for their actions. Even the "villains" of the story are explored in quite a bit of detail.
At the surface this story can be simply described as "students are forced to kill each other", but that doesn't even begin to describe this novel. I've already mentioned above how it is a story about ordinary people in an extreme situation, and that gets closer to the essence of it. But there's even more to it. There are lots of themes touched upon in amongst all the carnage, and despite being action-filled in some ways it reads much more like a philosophical novel. Especially representative of this are the glimpses we get of the alternate world the story is set in.
The story has a lot of tension to it. Structurally there are lots of shorter chapters, with many of the cast getting their own viewpoint. This structure makes you get closer to the overall story, while at the same time never being sure who is really a relevant player.
Towards the end there are several twists and turns. It's hard to know what is really going to happen, and at least some of the developments will not be expected.
(Note: Seeing the movie will ruin some of this. If you haven't seen it yet, I can't urge you strongly enough to wait until after you have read the novel. -If you have seen the movie, as I had, it's best if you read the novel when it has been a while since you saw the film. Going directly from the movie to the novel is a really bad idea.)
All in all this is a very powerful novel. It is brutal in many ways, for some perhaps too brutal, but it never feels gratuitous. It will however get under your skin in some way. And the story will stay with you for a while, there are underpinnings that demand that you think about them.
In many ways this is a novel that defies traditional genre classification. It's Alternate History, Near Future Science Fiction, Dystopic Science Fiction, and definitely a comment on society and human nature.
This is a novel that in my opinion deserves to be read by many more people, and I urge everyone who reads this review to give it a try. It should be required reading for anyone who likes any of the subgenres, or themes, that I have mentioned above.