Saturday, June 27, 2020

Fiction Review: A Beginning at the End

I absolutely loved Mike Chen's first novel, Here and Now and Then, when I read and reviewed it for Shelf Awareness last year. That was a time travel novel that focused in on characters and their relationships. His second novel, A Beginning at the End, takes a similar approach with a sci fi plot but a narrative focus on the people. Except that the sci plot in this novel is about a global pandemic. Yeah. Not feeling so sci-fi-ish anymore, is it? The novel is different, though, and I enjoyed listening to it on audio, during our own stay-at-home orders.

The pandemic in A Beginning at the End is far more deadly than our own with COVID-19. In the novel, the global pandemic (also a virus) killed most of the planet's population, leaving pockets of humanity in quarantine communities, gangs, and communes. The novel begins six years after the pandemic hit, though, so the remaining people are attempting to define their new normal (sorry, I know everyone is sick of that term now but it's accurate here!) and rebuild trashed infrastructure. Certain cities have survived and re-taken their communities back from gangs; these are referred to Metropolitan Zones or Metros, including the San Francisco Metro, where this novel takes place. The narrative is split between several key characters. When the pandemic hit, Moira was a teen superstar known as MoJo, complete with elaborate costumes and face paint. She had grown to hate that life, though, numb from the influence of alcohol and drugs and under the controlling thumb of her manager/father, so she uses the crisis as an opportunity to disappear and become an ordinary person. As Moira, she is working in the SF Metro and planning to marry her boyfriend. She's been planning her wedding with Krista, a wedding and events planner who sometimes moonlights as a "reunion agent." Krista has her own dark history, featuring an alcoholic mother. Moira works in the same news agency as Rob, an IT specialist, and at the start of the novel, Rob and Krista get stuck in an elevator together, so Rob confides in her his worries about his beloved daughter, Sunny, who's struggled since her mother died.Those four characters, almost strangers when the novel opens, get pulled together by evolving events. Besides Moira's upcoming wedding and Rob's problems with Sunny, news reports of the virus re-emerging in a mutated form throw all of society into chaos again.

The four characters band together on their own personal quest, so the novel moves into a more action-packed, thriller-like story toward the end. Still, though, the author's focus is always on the people and their relationships (to each other and to others), zeroing in on the human side of the medical crisis and their own personal issues. Given that, I wasn't bothered by reading about a pandemic during our own pandemic, since the focus is on the characters, and the virus in this novel was clearly apocalyptic, destroying society for 6+ years. It also helps that the story centers on a time after the crisis is passed, though the re-emergence of a mutated virus was unsettling (in this case, scientists quickly got to work on a modified treatment and vaccine). I liked all of the characters and found myself pulled into their world, which was both similar to and different from the one we have been living in since March. I kept thinking about the author writing this book and then seeing real-life events unfold similarly just after the book was released: that must have been truly surreal for him! The audiobook was well-done and immersive, and I enjoyed escaping into this parallel universe and getting to know the characters.

400 pages, MIRA

Listen to a sample of the audiobook here, the opening scene from MoJo's concert when the pandemic breaks out six years earlier, and/or download it from Audible at the link.

You can purchase A Beginning at the End from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
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Or you can order A Beginning at the End from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. 400 pages so it counts for your challenge! The book I'm reading right now is 392 and I am so frustrated that it isn't 8 pages longer! :-)

    1. Yes!! I had been wanting to listen to it so was thrilled to hear it just made the cut for the summer challenge! lol