I was initially put off from the book because of the post-apocalyptic setting, which frankly I feel has been done to death at this point. But the foreign element–it’s set in the Moscow subway system–made it feel fresh to me. The idea is that after a nuclear war, people settled in the Metro, using the various stations as towns of sorts.
The story is about a man named Artyom who sets off to get help for his home station when it is being attacked by monsters. It is very much a “Hero’s Journey”/Odyssey type of story, that follows Artyom as he stops at many stations within the haunted metro and meets assorted characters who provide their observations and musings.
Although it has many (very well done) horror and thriller elements, the book is actually very philosophical, and there are some sections that are just long speeches, conversations or debates. But it’s never overly didactic, and it never became dull or tedious for me. In particular, there is one conflict towards the end that concerns the meaning and utility of religion in society that I think is absolutely brilliant.
As you can gather, I enjoyed the book very much and highly recommend it. I felt there were a few weak points–Artyom constantly being pulled from Death’s door by Some New Character got a bit repetitive, though usually the character was interesting enough to make me excuse it. Also, there were no really notable female characters, but this isn’t necessarily a problem per se, since the setting sort of implies that the women and children are deliberately kept in the towns, and most of the story takes place in the dangerous Metro tunnels. (I have more issues with how female characters are handled in the video games–maybe I’ll do a post about that.)
The main problem I had was the translation from the original Russian. There were times when the dialogue was rather awkward sounding, and unfortunately the errors become more widespread as the story reaches its otherwise brilliantly-executed climax. There was one key line on the last page where they apparently couldn’t decide whether to write “understand” or “understood” and settled on “understandood”. It kind of killed the tension of the moment, which was superbly built.
All told, I think it is a terrific book, and I actually gained new respect for the game having read it. It is a tough story to adapt to a video game, and I think they did about as well as could have been hoped.