This is a direct sequel to “Flesh Worn Stone” so if you haven’t done so already, read that first. My Hellforge review of it can be found here.
But for those of us who have seen and survived the Game, I will briefly recap. The first book followed the ghastly plight of Steven Alexander, who after the murder of his young sons, found himself trapped in a cave on an island. Along with hundreds of others, he was plunged into a world of murder, rape and cannibalism in a savage arena – the Game – all at the whim of some unseen rich elite.
“Bone Splintered Asphalt” picks up exactly where we left our broken and gore-drenched hero, escaping the island on a cruise ship with a mute child named Mia.
This novel doesn’t hang about, and Steven immediately finds himself hiding from the ship’s staff who seem to be under the command of the “Court”: a centuries-old organisation that run the whole thing. A hunted man, Steven must think fast and kill quick to survive, and once he gets to the ship’s destination, he begins to realise that the Court’s power reaches further than he realised.
Also drawn into the darkness is Marcus Dillard, a regular FBI agent, and both men spiral into the Court’s chilling web that has influence across the globe, from media to law enforcement.
Although this has a different vibe to “Flesh Worn Stone” – dabbling with conspiracy thriller as well as extreme horror – there’s plenty of familiarity to make us feel at home. We’re treated to a variation of the Game played in a dilapidated mall and also meet Darius again, a champion back from the ravages of the island’s Cave. While a shadow of his former physique, he’s still as vicious and fearless as ever.
The main players are strong and I was along with Steven and Marcus all the way as they sink deeper into danger, the action deftly switching between the two. I was less impressed with the character of Lulu – who runs the mall – as she seemed rather comic book and not particularly frightening despite her sociopathic cruelty. But while some of the minor players are somewhat one-dimensional, it usually just adds to their Laymonesque brutality.
I liked the development of Mia, the child rescued from the hell of the Cave, who knows nothing else. She proves to be Steven’s Achilles’ heel by giving him somebody to care about, and also provides moments of dark humour regarding her casual approach to cannibalism.
My main grumble, as was the case with the first instalment, is that this book has far more than its fair share of typos, spelling mistakes and other errors that cause confusion. It’s a shame, as a thorough edit would’ve smoothed out all these superficial niggles, but at least I kept reading which is testament to the strength of the story. I would’ve bailed on lesser pieces over this.
I also felt a lag in pace about two thirds of the way through, but generally, this is a well structured novel. It begins at a tight sprint then allows the pieces to fall into place before some high-octane action paves the way for the finale.
It’s not as beautifully nightmarish as “Flesh Worn Stone”, lacking the same depths of visceral darkness and reflection on the base human condition. As I said, it wanders into conspiracy thriller territory, but by doing this presents menace of a grander scale. I found the philosophy of the Court intriguing and perhaps there’s a degree of satirical reflection regarding our own governments and cultures.
I was carried by our unwitting hero’s weary frustration, sadness, fear and hate. The finale is unexpected but appropriate, mercifully devoid of any cheap shots that such stories can suffer, and it brings a distinct level of pathos to the table as well as satisfying the inner ghoul.
It does require a hefty suspension of disbelief, much more so than “Flesh Worn Stone”. There’s a fine line between brilliance and nonsense with this kind of plot, and it happily manages to err the right side most of the time, and delivers some helpless desperation in the vein of “Rosemary’s Baby” along with the adrenaline.
If you enjoyed the first book of the Game, then there’s no reason why you won’t lose yourself in “Bone Splintered Asphalt”. A third chapter is apparently on the way, and this is pleasing news indeed. John A. Burks is running with a superb and pitch-black concept, and it’ll be interesting to see where he takes it next.