A review of The Games by Ted Kosmatka

Could the Olympics destroy civilisation as we know it?

Okay, perhaps not the Olympics by themselves but the dread combination of the Olympics and decision by committee?

The Games by Ted Kosmatka is a dark thriller set against the backdrop of an alternative Olympics in a world almost the same as ours.

Imagine a world that was firmly against animal cruelty and yet had a default marriage contract length of three years (with active renewals needed after that). This is a world that uses genetic engineering to create subservient pets but also insists on a special, sobering, drink being served to at least one person in a group in a pub to reduce drunk driving.

In this world there is an additional Olympic games – the Gladiator games. In the Olympic Gladiatorial Games genetically engineered animals fight against one another and the winner is the survivor.

America must win these games and so they deploy a super computer to design their entry. The computer, without humanity, designs something interesting.

It’s a good set up. I enjoyed The Games and Ted Kosmatka tells a good tale but I have to wonder whether the premise would have worked as well or better as a short story.

Main characters in the book are Doctor Silas Williams and Doctor Vidonia Joao. Doctor Williams is the head of genetics for the American entry. He didn’t design the American Gladiator – he built it.

Kosmatka’s story builds momentum as Williams begins to worry about what exactly he has built and yet finds himself trapped by the powerful Olympics committee. That’s why he brings on the xenobiologist Dr Vidonia to try and learn more about the creature they’ve built – a creature with genetics that seem too complex to reverse engineer.

One of the challenges the book faces is that Silas Williams is the scientist who built the creature. He is the scientist who, for a living, builds monsters for them to fight and die in the arena. Sure, he seems like a charismatic guy – but what sort of reader are you if you can quickly forgive him for being involved in blood sports?

Then again, perhaps one of the strengths The Games have has a story and the reason why it is not just a short story is that the complexity and sometimes duality of the characters create depth.

The Games has a fight with time. The book charts the birth of the Gladiator monster and from the outset it seems highly unlikely that the narrative won’t take us to the Games. As the first events in the Olympics come quite late on the in book it means some of the jeopardy scenes feel a little hollow.

Ultimately, The Games wins the fight with pacing because it’s a chilling ride. It’s rather like watching a train crash in slow motion – you know we’ll end up at the games and you know that’s going to be a very bad thing. (Although, well, I’d forgive you anyone for feeling an ounce or two of support for the Gladiator.)

Ted Kosmatka’s The Games is an easy read. Publishers Weekly described the story as a mix of Crichton and Koontz and I agree. It’s a compelling blend.

My copy of The Games was provided for review.