Written by Asa Avdic, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles — Fresh blood is spilt here in a debut novella penned by a Swedish broadcast journalist, which claims to please the fans of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. That is what the publisher’s marketing machine trumpets, along with the headline the thriller was “a huge hit in Sweden”.
If comparisons have to be made, then more accurate parallels could be with Agatha Christie’s biggest selling novel, And Then There Were None, in which a group of people are lured to an island under false pretexts. They are killed off one by one and the reader plays sleuth to identify the killer. The Dying Game begins with a similar premise of a group in captivity on a cut-off island with individuals disappearing, but turns into something you may find rather slow.
The book opens with an encylopaedia entry from 2016 explaining how the totalitarian The Protectorate of Sweden under The Union of Friendship has been under martial law since 1992.
We move forward to 2037 and a first person account by Anna Francis, a diplomat who has recently returned from a disastrous (for her) humanitarian mission alongside the junta and military with its unfortunate incidents. She is summoned by the sinister, all-powerful The Chairman, to fake her own death in an assignment on a remote island, which will be cut off from the world for 48 hours. The goal of the mission is to assess how a group of candidates for a top intelligence role with the secret RAN project react to her apparent murder in an implausible recruitment selection process.
Anna will be injected with paralysing drugs, her ‘lifeless’ body will be witnessed by one of the candidates before it is thrown in a locked freezer. When she comes to in her casket she will escape down some steps and observe and record the reactions of the others from spyholes inside hollow walls.
So far, so mildly intriguing although the pomposity of the state language in the secretariat office is like an episode of Yes Minister without the wit, brevity and cleverness. This isn’t helped by the clunkiness of the writing, which may have been rendered more awkward and even grammatically incorrect at times through the translation from the Swedish into US English.
Anna is a workaholic, has a young daughter she seldom sees and a poisonous relationship with her mother. She’s strange, unstable and has PTSD following her last mission. So this really isn’t a good gig for her. She has also fallen for her colleague Henry Fall, and you’ll enjoy the chapter in which he takes over the narration. He describes Anna from the outside and the situations when they worked together that Anna has already described.
When the party arrives on Isola and the boat leaves them stranded, Anna is surprised to see Henry. She has little time to worry as a storm erupts and the power goes out before her death is faked. From her hiding place she realises the real game is something quite different from the one she signed up for.
There are moments of tension, like when Anna succumbs to being injected unconscious by a doctor she doesn’t trust and the paranoia that goes with being trapped in a place where no one – even in death – is what they seem.
The Dying Game doesn’t serve up the pacy and thrilling rush the marketing promises and the lengthy and ponderous explanation of what is really going on, told through the state’s interrogation of the experiment’s survivors, plods to its conclusion.
For dystopian thrills try No Dominion by Louise Welsh or The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.There are more dark forces at work on Swedish islands in The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin, The Dangerous Game by Mari Jungstedt or turn to the master Henning Mankell who based several of his Wallander novels on remote isles.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars