S.M. Anderson’s End of Summer is one of those books that happened to come out at a very appropriate time. The premise of the book is that an air-borne virus with a 7-10 day incubation period (sound familiar??) kills 97% of the human population.
End of Summer was published in August of 2019, which means it rolled out a few months prior to the pandemic we’re all in. That said, reading a post-apocalyptic book with this premise while in the midst of a pandemic caused by an airborne virus definitely made the material hit closer to home than it might have otherwise.
A Believable Apocalypse
Generally, when I read post-apocalyptic novels or books that take place in a dystopian future, the premise seems either wildly improbable (read: zombies) or so far from our current technological capabilities as to be not worth worrying about (a la the Giver).
Not so with End of Summer. Not only does our current pandemic make the concept of an airborne pathogen hit close to home, but Anderson clearly did his research. The opening chapter of End of Summer takes place in the lab where the deadly virus was cultivated, and Anderson crafts an all-too-believable tale of an intern’s ineptitude and refusal to follow directions causing the virus’s escape from the lab and ultimate infection of humanity.
The fall-out from the virus is equally believable. Some people try to flee town while others gather supplies, but ultimately, personal immunity is the only thing that saves the 3% of the human population that remains.
The Best and Worst of Humanity
One of Anderson’s skills when writing End of Summer lay in the fact that he knew that no one would be left unscathed by the end of the world. Moral ambiguity is a major underlying theme in this novel, and the so-called “good guys” are really just “better than the worst guys.” This doesn’t make them any less likeable. Rather, the absence of any Ned Stark-esque naivety in the face of the apocalypse feels very real.
People are trying to survive in terrible circumstances with no warning and little-to-no training. In light of that, it’s no wonder that some of the shit they do to survive is less than ideal.
Many post-apocalyptic novels have the survivors spread out into different pockets, wandering desert wastelands. Anderson went the other way, choosing to have the vast majority of survivors in End of Summer gathered in one location. Led by a former police chief who seems to have lost his mind after the end of the world, the mall contains what’s left of “civilization,” led by the very worst of humanity.
The strong have taken control here, forming a militia of “soldiers” that rule through fear and through complete control of weapons. Women, children, and any men who don’t agree with how the soldiers are running things are treated as slaves (dubbed “sheep”) and forced to complete any menial labor that needs doing. They’re not allowed to leave the camp, and any attempts to escape are met with a painful and public execution. The soldiers, meanwhile, continue to sweep through the city, gathering supplies and survivors while killing anyone they think is too old or too young to serve a purpose in their twisted new society.
Within this setting, the “best” of humanity–as depicted by Anderson–is filled with their own set of grievances. Here’s a quick rundown of the main players:
- Jason: An ex-marine, Jason’s only reason for staying alive is to fulfill the promise he made to his dying wife that he’d help the survivors. So far, he’s been helping by killing soldiers any chance he gets. Only after running into Pro does it even cross his mind that some of the soldiers might not be pure evil, and may only be doing what it takes to survive their circumstances.
- Pro: When we meet Pro, he’s very much still a boy, baseball-obsessed and hiding in his apartment with the bodies of his dead mother and sister, whom he’s too terrified to bury. Like any survivor, he learns to spend his days hiding from soldiers and his nights gathering supplies to survive. Early in the book, he’s captured by the soldiers. He spends some time surviving in their camp, but when he’s nearly raped by a soldier and murders the man in self defense, he finds himself fleeing into a blizzard to escape. By the time he and Jason are together, Pro has grown into someone who is no longer afraid of death and is happy to do just about anything to take down the soldiers who held him captive.
- Daniel: AKA Sleepy. This high-ranking soldier lost his way in the post-apocalyptic months and did some things he seriously regrets. Throughout the novel, he tries to account for his past misdeeds by infiltrating the soldiers ranks from the inside.
- Michelle: Daniel’s girlfriend and one of the “sheep,” she’s been somewhat protected from the other soldiers since she and Daniel got together. However, months spent passed from man to man without her consent before she and Daniel hooked up have taken a toll, and she is thoroughly eager to take down the soldiers.
- Rachel: Found by Jason and Pro tied up with a girl named Elsa in the back of a clothing store, Rachel has some serious PTSD going on. Her story is told mostly through allusion, but you can garner that the guy who’d tied her and Elsa up was pretty effed in the head. She legitimately enjoys killing the men from the mall.
Master of “Show, Don’t Tell”
Lit teachers, take note: when you’re trying to explain the concept of “show, don’t tell,” to your students, S.M. Anderson is a prime example of what writers should be aiming for. Dialogue and setting combine to tell you more about characters than a million Dickensian descriptions.
For example, Anderson doesn’t ever come out and say that Pro is from an underprivileged immigrant family. You get that impression, however, from pieces of dialogue–a smarmy lady who tells Pro that he “speaks really well” and a snide comment about how he’s probably never stayed in a hotel because his family couldn’t afford it gives us these details without slowing the pacing of the story to describe them outright.
Of course, that writing technique has some flaws–Pro’s age in my head jumped up and down several times before it was finally revealed that he was about 15–but I was happy to do the occasional mental gymnastics in return for tight writing that felt natural.
A Lackluster Ending
If there’s one flaw with End of Summer, it comes at the end of the book. (Note: Spoilers ahead).
First of all, there’s a weird romance added between Rachel and Jason that had minimal–if any–set-up. This seemed especially trite since I know that End of Summer is the first book in a series. It would have been easy enough to have Rachel sit by Jason’s bed as he was recovering from his injuries and for them to share a smile and squeeze each other’s hands at the end of the book, alluding to something more down the road, without coming out and saying everything.
Instead, this was the one place where Anderson really told us what was happening instead of showing it naturally, and I wasn’t a fan. Suddenly, in the last couple of chapters, you have Pro commenting that Rachel is in love with Jason, and then you have Michelle calling her out on it, and then you have Jason’s dead wife giving him permission to be with her…
It was all a bit heavy-handed for me.
It would have been one thing if there had been a hint of a spark between the two characters throughout the novel. Instead, it felt like Anderson’s editors told him that he needed a love story, and he shoved it into the last two chapters of the novel.
I’m not anti Rachel/Jason… but it could have been saved for book two.
And speaking of things that could have waited for book two, the weird field trip we took to Antarctica in the middle of the last chapter slowed the pacing down waaaaay too much. That storyline either needed to be sprinkled throughout the novel, saved for an epilogue, or excluded entirely and saved for book two.
My complaints about the ending of the book aside, Anderson did a nice job wrapping up the plot lines. In fact, while I absolutely plan to give this writer another go—I loved this novel and want to read more by him—I’m not actually sure I’ll read the rest of this series. I liked where the characters were at the end of this book, and while I didn’t like the neat bow he placed on the Rachel/Jason plot, since he put it there, I’m not compelled to read the next book to see if they maybe get together. Cuz, you know, it already happened.
Worth the Price of Admission
Overall, I’m glad I invested both my time and money in the End of Summer. It wasn’t what I’d call a LIGHT read—the material gets a little heavy at times—but it was a relatively quick read with a good amount of payoff. For my first experience with this writer, I’m calling it a win, and I definitely intend to see what else Anderson has up his sleeve… even if I likely won’t follow this particular series any further.
I’m giving End of Summer a more-than-respectable 8.5/10 for solid characters, down-to-earth writing, and an engaging plot. And, honestly, that last point and a half was killed in the final 3 chapters, not because the ending sucked, but because it dragged longer than it needed to and tied Rachel & Jason’s story up a little too neatly for a book that’s supposed to have a sequel.