Top critical review
Prepare to type your hate mail...
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on January 17, 2015
...Because I'm giving this novel just one star. And believe me, I have a good reason to do so. Not only did I not like this novel, I simply found it to be an exceptionally poor product, given how I could use the money I spent for at least two superior novels. And to illustrate my point, I'm going to touch base with as many sub topics of this novel as I can. You can disagree with me all you want, but it is not going to change how I felt about this novel. And keep in mind that I said "novel," not "video game."
To begin, I want to clarify that I played the video game before I read this novel. I'll say right now that I'm going to do my best in not drawing comparisons to the video game and just look at the novel as a standalone piece.
Quite a few people here addressed this, and I'll do the same: the Kindle formatting is botched. As a first impression on what you are in for, the formatting looks like someone typed up the whole story in MS Word and copy-pasted it to a different word processor before exporting it as an ebook. There is low spacing between paragraphs and the paragraphs themselves have no indents. This is especially aggravating when the characters enter rambling walls of dialogue and you sometimes forget who is speaking. Let me ask, why did no one format this correctly? Had the publisher actually checked the export before putting it up into the marketplace or even looked at how other novels looked so that they have some clue on how they should make the ebook look? Editors set up the spacing as how I said it so that the text is more readable. Seeing as how this book is an international bestseller translated into multiple languages, I expected more professionalism from this publisher. Seriously, I can do a much better job in an hour. I'm not even trying to sound haughty. I really think someone slacked off and didn't bother trying to make this a presentable and acceptable ebook.
This also needs addressing, as this is one of the biggest problems that the English translation has to offer. The editing is absolutely atrocious. I'm not kidding when I'm saying this: it's worse than some of the bad fan fiction I had laid eyes on. It is like the translators had no time to look over the material and decided to publish the book without any editing. Good writers edit... A LOT. I don't see any polish here. Paired with terrible formatting, this ebook gives you the impression that it was done by a high school kid finishing an essay project at the last minute. There are a multitude of spelling/grammar errors, run-on sentences, overuse of modifiers, lack of concision and clarity, repetition/redundancy, telling more than showing, incorrect usage of dialogue/action tags, 'said' bookisms, and even missing spaces between words. Did anyone proofread this at all? It is such an incomprehensible mess.
First, the modifiers. Somewhere along the line, someone is obsessed with stuffing the sentences with as many adjectives and adverbs as possible. Example? Sure thing:
- That one was utterly graceful, light, airy, spacious, with transparent columns, wide and high arches, despite the gloomy lighting and the inscriptions and drawings covering the walls.
There are 9 modifiers in that one sentences. N-I-N-E. This isn't just a nitpick either; it's terrible writing, period. You don't do this. Why? Because it's all fat, no substance.
To further explain this issue, compare the number of pages of the original novel to the English translation. The Russian novel has 348 pages. The English translation somehow has 458 pages. I don't know any Russian, but how did you manage to add in over a hundred pages of content for the same exact story? There are literal translations, and then there is just bloated writing.
Any professional publisher could tell you that this story, as it stands now, needs a lot of work in editing and needs to present its material in a more clear and concise manner. Otherwise, no big name publisher in their right mind would sell this if they didn't know it would be an international bestseller.
Our main character is Artyom, who is as transparent as a protagonist can get. Despite having something of a backstory and the novel trying to convince you that Artyom is an extraordinary person, he somehow has very little presence throughout the entire novel because he lacks a definite personality and is mostly short-spoken. And when he does speak, it's not to show his character; instead, he often asks a secondary character a question in order to prompt an exposition dump about the book's setting.
So as the main character, what is his goal? To complete the request of Hunter, a man he barely knew, by delivering the message of his failure to defeat the Dark Ones to a city called Polis. Artyom does this at the risk of his life, many times. What is Artyom's motive to take such a seemingly enormous task? Though it was poorly explained, he seemed to believe that he had to take matters into his own hands in order to save the human race. Otherwise, I'm led to believe that the reason he put his life on the line is because he "promised" a stranger he would do something for him.
Quote, page 435: "And everything that had happened to Artyom during his travels proved only one thing: he was not the same as everyone. Something special had been intended for him. He was supposed to make mincemeat of and destroy the vermin which otherwise would make short work of the remnants of mankind."
And further ahead, the text explained that all of the events that happened seemed to be predetermined for Artyom, that he was meant to be some sort of destined hero. This is one instance where the novel takes itself too seriously and ends up sounding both pretentious and cliche. As far as character development shows, I am not certain if Artyom matured from his experience considering it almost seemed he was sure of himself from beginning to end. Because I knew only a little about this character's life and personality, I couldn't tell if he grew from the events that took place.
You can easily take this character out of the story and it will make little difference. It is inconsequential. He is nothing more than a tool to incite exposition and not much more. The closest to an emotional moment we have with this character is after leaving the Great Library, he stumbles upon a photo of a mother and a child with his name on it, implying that it was a younger him with his mother. But this moment is so contrived (as in, how did he so happen to stumble upon that specific photo in such a random place?) that it played against what the author intended to do. The author further killed the point of this scene by having Artyom's stepfather, Sukhoi, failing to acknowledge the lady in the photo as Artyom's mother. So ultimately, this brief plot thread was pointless and wiped out the only possible connection we could have with this character. In the end, he is nothing more than a skin for the reader to wear in order to see the world in his shoes.
The supporting characters don't hold much weight either. They just come and go at the author's whim and only stay for a few chapters. The irony is that some are more important for the plot than Artyom himself. The absolute worst part about them is most also lack a distinct personality and sound too similar, which sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish who is currently speaking during a scene. For the most part, their purpose is to tell Artyom many unrelated backstories that don't apply to him and just serve to lecture you about how this novel's world works. We don't learn about the histories about these particular characters either. If the author can't bother with making these cardboard cutouts show emotion, then why should I be emotionally invested into the story?
Point A to Point B. Artyom goes here, Artyom goes there. That is the majority of the plot, all with loads of exposition and incredibly slow pacing. There is no three-act structure, if there is any structure at all. The author somehow has a talent for having too much going on while there is too little going on. What that means: he likes to put in a bunch of different, non-sequitur scenes that have little to nothing to do with the plot. It's like he wrote all of these scenes separately and decided to put them together in hopes that they somehow form a coherent novel. Here's a hint: it doesn't. There is no connection between these scenes, therefore they are pointless.
This is not how plotting works. All this does is to simulate the illusion of movement, but with no actual forward progression. There is little character development going on and so much filler gets packed in chapters at a time.
The story begins when a friend of Artyom's stepfather came to visit--yes, I know there's a bit of a prologue before this but it's a bunch of fluff that has nothing to do with the plot. The visit wasn't a pleasant one as Sukhoi, the stepfather, lost his nerve as he rambled on how the Dark Ones (mutated humankind with psychic abilities) will destroy the human race and take their place at the top of the food chain. The visitor named Hunter retaliated by declaring that he won't go down without a fight. And just to raise the urgency of the situation, Hunter did exactly that; he left to fight the Dark Ones. But in case he doesn't return from this important mission, Hunter gave Artyom the task of reporting his failure to a man named Melnik (Miller in the games) at Polis. Artyom seemingly accepted this task without question from this man he just met moments ago, later claiming in the text that he "promised Hunter" that he would fulfill it. Here's my question: if this task is so important, why did Hunter leave it to a young man who never left his home and was barely experienced in using a gun, especially one who is the stepson of a man who is afraid of confronting the Dark Ones? Apparently, Hunter had plenty of allies who could relay this message to his commanding officer, so this story's entire premise falls flat. In a way, this sets the ground for a "coming of age" story for Artyom, but there is very little in regards to the relationship between Artyom and Hunter. And later on, we realized that Polis was very far away and Hunter is sending a kid that far into enemy territory just to relay his message. Oookay.
So Artyom left everyone and everything he loved behind, just because he promised a random guy he would fulfill a random task--and yes, I am aware this little plot hole existed in the games too. From there, Artyom went place to place while getting caught up in a political struggle between the capitalist Hansa, the communist Red Line, and Nazis. Yes, the Nazi party (the Fourth Reich as they call it), in underground Russia. Nazis, who were the enemy of Russia during World War II (why exactly are they around again?) Things get even more complicated as Artyom encountered religious fundamentalists, a corrupt municipal government run by a Hindu caste system (...what?) and even a cannibal cultist group that worships a deity called "the Great Worm." I wish I was making that last part up. And through all this, the author expected you to take this journey very seriously.
So all this time, the scenes don't necessarily flow well into another. You can probably rearrange these scenes into a different order and it wouldn't make any difference, because barely anything relevant happens. Eventually, Artyom did reach Polis to deliver his message to Melnik (after over half of the novel went by), but it wasn't enough for him. He joined up with the "stalkers," (group led by Melnik) to the Great Library (which the context forgot to warn us that it was located in the poisonous, irradiated surface world beforehand) in order to find a "secret" that apparently Artyom was going to discover because some priest told him he's "special" and is supposed to hear a "voice" from a magic book. Eventually, he and the stalkers learned of a command center that could help launch missiles called D6 that they can utilize to initiate a nuclear holocaust against the Dark Ones at the surface world--and speaking of which, the Dark Ones have barely been mentioned throughout the entire novel so it's easy to forget about them. And so they did perform the missile strike and watched the surface world burn while Artyom walked away with tears in his eyes. This "climax" happens in a few paragraphs, and the novel cared more about talking about meaningless backstories. Talk about disappointing.
And yeah, that's it. Everything else is filler or world exposition. The book spent more than half of its length wasting time while Artyom had to go fulfill this "urgent" promise for Hunter (which is apparently NOT SO URGENT, given the time it took), and this has been going on for the entire novel. I never got the sense of accomplishment from watching Artyom go to all these places and talk to all these people. Every now and then, the text tries to throw a moral dilemma your way to force you into this endless pondering session. It is like the story has no focus on what it wants to be about so it keeps throwing out these short plot threads, only to withdraw them at a short notice. This is made more obvious when the text seems more interested in telling you about this world rather than showing it. It feels like I'm reading one massive Wikipedia page rather than enjoying a story. This is easily one of the novel's most glaring flaws as it constantly puts the whole plot to a stop just to force you to sit through a lecture. This might be okay for a reference book, but for a fictional story? That is terrible writing. This book isn't intent on being entertaining, but preachy.
This is a tough one, considering how the Metro series was widely praised for its settings and visuals. But as far as written descriptions in the novel go, they are overall average and unimaginative. Part of why I felt that this novel wasn't going to work was because these descriptions didn't live up to common feedback I saw.
First off, how did this writing qualify as "horror?" I even saw someone here compare it to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, which is really pushing it. They're not even close to measuring up. Despite the lengths in which the novel tries to put you in suspense, I wouldn't necessarily call it "scary." There is even rarely a sense of tension as well, because most scenes in the novel are not action-oriented and instead tell stories of what is supposed to be horrifying. And when there IS tension in a scene, it's ruined by the slow pacing of the text. Maybe you're thinking about the video game since that adaptation had a bunch of mutant fauna trying to kill you, but there was only one particular scene in which the novel gave these monsters any precedence. Yep. The monsters that served as one of the common enemies in the game barely made any appearance in the novel.
"Atmospheric" is also a strong word. How often did the description actually appeal to the five senses? Can you hear, see, smell, touch, and even taste the Metro? Again, this is pushing it. Most of what contributed to the novel's atmosphere is all of the little backstories you read about. That, and you get descriptions on the appearance of some structures. And several pages explaining the importance of mushroom tea to the Metro (yes, seriously).
The post-apocalyptic setting isn't a new concept, and this novel doesn't really help much in freshening it up. The metro, to say the least, is unimaginative and just blends in one big, grey mass. It's like the story is trying to convince you that these locations are vastly different from one another and hold a lot of variety, though it falls flat. Naming of most locations is "word + -skaya," so it is difficult to know what place Artyom is currently in. And this novel spends a LOT OF TIME describing them too, and they're locations that Artyom stays at for brief periods. Again, it's just more bloated text. It only serves to slow everything down.
This is not to say that the author shouldn't build up his setting. In fact, he seems to have great ideas on making a diverse, unique world. Sadly, I can't praise this too much as everything else that fell flat for me only serves to make this aspect of the novel all the more tragic. Had this translation been published as a tighter, faster-paced read with clearer character motives and a well conceived plot, I would say this novel would be a unique experience. Overall, I felt the setting actually works against what this novel wanted to portray.
This is also a tough one, considering it's a big part of the novel. If there is any merit to the novel, it's the fact that the author tries to be persuasive with his audience by demonizing the human race by putting lots of disgusting freaks into the same setting. How subtle. Did I mention this novel gets preachy?
Example from the text: "Was Artyom such an important piece to the game that all these people had to perish for his preservation?"
This is one of the many in-text ethical questions directly stated, as if the author decided to throw in his discussion questions right into the story. This is meant to show that Artyom feels bad for those people who died around him. However, this is moments after his rescue from the Nazis (or at least a "dream" of it?) Guess what the Nazis did: they captured him, tortured him, and tried to execute him based on fraudulent, distorted accusations (which the novel so kindly decided to portray these people as angry, superstitious monkeys with no real motive). It's clear enough that these people are murderers just for the fun of it, and Artyom felt bad that these same people died because someone had to kill them to rescue him. This is a great example of a confused message. For people like Bourbon or Mikhail Ponfirevich, I can understand where this moral applies. But are we really supposed to feel bad for a gang of bigoted, zealous murderers getting a taste of their own medicine? My best guess is that this message's real meaning was lost in translation and what we got is a misworded ethical question.
And this is not the first time that the text tries to emphasize how important Artyom is either, by TELLING us he's important. Maybe if he stops being so submissive and actually starts doing things for himself, I would believe it. Otherwise, he's not really a "special" kind of person.
The novel also touches upon conflicting government values, skewed morals, spirituality, nostalgia, nature, cults, and the state of the human race. These are great topics to subtly explore and allow the readers to decide what the novel means to them, but again... stop directly telling us what we should think. Stop overdoing on how low humanity can sink and only mark the absolute worst characteristics of it. Stop marking people and factions in "black and white" rather than taking the time to explain motives. It's one-sided and doesn't bring about thought-provoking questions. All it amounts to in the end is that humanity had been and will always continue to destroy itself, even at the brink of extinction. I have no problem with a pessimistic message, but you have to at least put a little bit of hope somewhere because the "worst" of humanity is characterized in an over-the-top manner.
It should be noted that this novel was started by an 18-year old, posted four years later for free reading on his personal website. The story is something of a cult hit that became popular enough to spawn a beautifully done video game series (and possible film adaptation) along with other novels. Despite this, I still stand by what I say. This novel is dull, amateur written, and doesn't nearly live up to the hype it's been given. In fact, the English translation might be nothing more than a quick cash-in on the popularity of the Metro 2033 video game. And the fact that this novel has been sitting for so long without proper editing just begs the question: does this idea really work as a novel? It does for a video game, but this novel is a fine example of how its own ambition overshadows good writing. Better writing is much more likely to cover up inherent flaws and make them less noticeable.
With that said, I want to make it clear of what expectations I had. I wasn't expecting a masterpiece. I wasn't expecting a literary classic. I wasn't even expecting the video game to be a faithful adaptation. But at the very least with a novel of such reputation, I was expecting it to be entertaining. But this novel doesn't even meet the bare minimum requirements of good storytelling. Without its successful video game adaptation, this book couldn't even stand up on its own legs.
But this is what I find more irritating: this book got high reviews mostly because the people compared it to the video game. When I looked through the reviews here to try to understand why it got such high reviews, people kept claiming it had such good writing, but didn't pay attention to actual writing mechanics. This is not a matter of opinion though; when you look at the basics of creative writing, you will find that this novel fails to meet them. Basic plot-building, characterization, world building, etc. Actual writing techniques proven effective by professional authors. And to bend those techniques the "right" way, you first need to understand how to use them.
Other comments suggested to me that people only liked the book because they liked the game. This is false advertising. Because you have given such a flawed product such high reviews, this gives the people putting out this product an incentive of not trying harder. That is how such a shoddy product suddenly becomes "acceptable" in the eyes of the public. The lack of quality control. You can still like the book if you wish, but please don't substitute your feelings for the game to review the novel. I can tell you right now: I played the game first, which aggressively and shamelessly advertised its source material and it was how I found out about the novel. But in order for the source material to work, it needs to be able to stand up on its own. So despite that I loved the video game, I was vastly disappointed by this novel.
So at the risk of enduring some peer pressure, I will NOT read any more related material to this novel. It left nothing but a bad taste in my mouth and I'm just going to be "that one guy" who didn't like the source material. It's really too bad, because I actually did want to like it. Sorry, but that's how it's going to be.