This was the second novel Dan Simmons wrote, immediately after Song of Kali. It was not his second published novel, however. Read the introduction to this edition to find out why; it makes a good story on its own, except for the really abrupt ending.
Simmons' genre-hopping tendencies start showing up right here - supposedly a horror story, this reads more like his take on a Robert Ludlum thriller - but with psychic, mind-controlling bad guys. It certainly is a page-turner, which is a good thing given its length, though there is a slow patch right at the beginning of the End Game. Taken along with all the rest of Simmons' output it only strengthens my opinion that this author can turn his hand to any genre and produce competent work.
So - End Game? - what's that all about? There's a chess theme running throughout the novel, which is divided into three sections, Opening, Middle Game and End Game. It's an inextricable part of the novel but towards the end becomes overt and slows the pace at a time when one would expect the opposite. On the other hand, the device solves some serious plot problems in a believable way. I'd be curious as to whether the end-game depicted in the book is considered well played by serious chess players.
One of the protagonists is Jewish and has a tattoo on his arm...this can be a cheap trick by an author in order to gain immediate sympathy and moral authority for the character but in this case such accusations would be false; this book is essentially about the Holocaust and what caused it; that most important of questions, what would you have done? Would you have followed orders and slaughtered Jews by the millions? Would you have done what ever it took to survive as a Jew in the camps, including tacit collaboration, by working for the Nazis? Why is it possible for industrial genocide to take place? Simmons is saying, in a very exaggerated fashion, that dominance of will by a minority or even an individual can cause all of this, though his "mind vampires" are not intended as a completely literal explanation.
Simmons is brave and suggests that the history of the modern state of Israel is not a black-and-white thing and asks what should one be prepared to do to route out evil? How many "innocents" have to die before it becomes morally untenable to take decisive action against a mass murderer who will continue and escalate his activities? Is revenge a moral justification? Is inaction morally justified? Should you involve others in what you know is a deadly conflict? The book does not necessarily answer all these questions - the idea is to make the reader think about them.
The "bad guys" in this book are bad indeed, but one of them is given a 1st person voice and she comes over most strongly as an utterly foul and increasingly deranged character because of it. Sharing her thoughts made me feel unclean - she's an appalling, disgusting creature. It would be easy to call her a monster, not human - but that is a cop out: her bigotry and evil are entirely human and that is what we have to face up to. Humanity has this potential.
This is a good book and thought-provoking but it isn't perfect: it is perhaps too long by 50-100p, the chess theme isn't terribly original or clever and I don't like the very end, though to explain why would add spoilers. Is there any unnecessary literary name dropping? Yes - this time Simmons' favourite "junk" writers are name-checked. These are mainly thriller writers - including Ludlum.