Metro 2033 is an awkward book for me to criticise because I’m sympathetic to it for many reasons. For one, it gave me a lot of nostalgia for when I lived in Moscow. For another, I loved the computer game. For a third, it’s a novel twist on that most-loved post-apocalyptic genre. And for a fourth, it’s hard to be harsh on a text that’s been translated from its original language. But for all its charm (and I did essentially like the book) it is far from perfect. If you’re after a dark romp through a creepy apocalypse, you could do worse, but you could also do a lot better. Here’s why:
Glukhovsky clearly had bold designs on presenting the protagonist’s journey through the Metro as some kind of Odyssey, in which every station presents a unique atmosphere with many unique characters. A lot of the time it works, the locations and characters are striking and memorable. But a lot of the time it falls short, when the description of yet another different society at metro station becomes tiresome. That is its major failing: the book is over-long, and doesn’t flow forward at a satisfying pace.
The author’s desire to take you through every detail of the drawn-out journey massively detracts from the most successful aspect of the novel – the gradually revealed threat of the creatures that lurk around Moscow. There are some brilliantly atmospheric passages when Artyom’s under attack from these creatures, but they’re few and far between. There didn’t necessarily need to be more of them, but there certainly needed to be less of everything else. There were a lot of half-baked philosophies thrown around in between events, for starters, which meant the main journey and its story arch didn’t feel so much like a gradually expanding adventure as the stop-start juddering of the metro trains it mimics.
The other stumbling point is that the book’s either been very poorly translated or wasn’t written well to begin with. I couldn’t comment on which is the case, my Russian’s not good enough to read the original (yet…) but the clumsy unrealistic dialogue and excessive reliance on passive language makes for some very amateurish prose. It’s a shame, because halfway through I thought the writing could be forgiven because the story was becoming very compelling (the peak for me, in fact, was Artyom’s journey to the library – whose atmosphere the book never recreated). By the end, that compelling story had petered out and been diluted too much to let me ignore the dodgy flow of the language.
It was perhaps a mistake to read this directly following Hugh Howey’s incredible Wool, especially when the two are quite similar in their settings. The difference is Howey wrote an original tale that had you on edge the whole way through, with its creepy atmosphere and gradual build towards the climax. Metro 2033 is a wholly pedestrian narrative, where the pace stumbles too often for the story to be anything more than an average post-apocalyptic adventure. But if that’s what you’re after, by all means check it out. (Although I’d recommend playing the game instead.)