Brad Meltzer,
The Zero Game
(Time Warner, 2004)

I am almost tempted to tell you not to read this review. In short, I was not impressed with the audiobook of Brad Meltzer's The Zero Game. If you are curious to know why, read on. If you just want to know whether to get this audiobook for your collection, skip the review as well as the book. There are better books (and reviews) out there.

I had several problems with The Zero Game. My first issue, and perhaps this was my mistake, was that I read the short synopsis of the story before popping in the first CD. "Matthew Mercer and Harris Sandler are playing a mysterious game. ... just by being invited to play -- you've confirmed your status as a true power broker in Washington. But as Matthew and Harris quickly discover, the Zero Game is hiding a secret...." At this point, my interest was increasing. Washington secrets! This should be good. The description continues, "And when someone close to them winds up dead...." Death and Washington secrets! This should be really good!

We'll get back to that last quote. Let me first give my own synopsis on the book.

When The Zero Game starts, Matthew Mercer describes how the game works. Essentially, it is a way to bet on Congressional voting. The identities of the participants in the game are secret. You only know the individual who brought you in and any individual you brought in yourself. Matthew brought in Harris Sandler. One of the latest bets is to see if the rights to a defunct gold mine on government property can be sold to a private company. Harris is going to slip it into one of the bills supported by the senator he works for. There is no way Matthew and Harris can lose this bet. So they bet their life savings. Now, I'm not giving much away since this happens early on in the book, but Matthew gets brutally killed after he puts the money up for the bet.

Hold up! I thought Matthew was a main character? The book started with first-person narration by Matthew. Now I've got to start over with Harris as the tale's narrator? I found this sudden switch kind of jarring, but I can adapt. I guess when I read "...when someone close to them winds up dead...," I simply wasn't prepared for just how close that someone was.

The rest of the book is one big continuous chase scene. Harris is chased by a hired killer with a strange accent. Along the way, he gets the help of a 16-year-old senate page named Viv Parker. Viv is much more of a main character than Matthew ever was. As Harris and Viv get chased halfway across the country to the gold mine and back to Washington, they figure out the real purpose behind the game and the purpose of the mine. If you want to know those secrets, you will have to read or hear the book. But I will warn you that the presentation leaves much to be desired.

Meltzer has written several New York Times bestsellers, including The First Counsel and The Millionaires. He knows how to write a thriller. Brad was also an intern on Capital Hill when he was 19, so he knows a bit about how Washington works. Is the problem with the audiobook version of The Zero Game with the way it was abridged? I haven't read the printed version, so I don't know.

Perhaps part of the problem has to do with the way Scott Brick reads the novel. Scott has recorded over 150 audiobooks. He is a practiced reader. Unfortunately, on The Zero Game, a lot of his characters sound the same. Some have distinct accents, but I found myself wondering which character was speaking on more than one occasion. What Scott does well is sound like he is stressed out and scared, as Harris and Viv are pretty much throughout the entire chase scene -- which takes up more than four of the five CDs.

As much as I wanted to like The Zero Game, I didn't. I would not recommend the audiobook unless you are a huge Meltzer fan and were going to get it regardless of anyone else's opinion. Maybe I'm simply too picky because I want more entertainment value for my money.

- Rambles
written by Wil Owen
published 19 June 2004

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