“She wanted an adventure. She never imagined it would go this far.”

During lockdown it was impossible to get to the library and I struggled to find books to read. I spent many hours re-reading the books on my shelves, but even that palled in the end. So, I was delighted to be sent a box of books of all different sorts: travel, crime, wartime, sci-fi and more.

One of these was The Last One by Alexandra Oliva. Published in 2016, it was her debut novel and it’s a quite strange mix of genres, although it probably cleaves closest to Science Fiction. The cover notes gripped me straight off:

When Zoo agrees to take part in a new reality TV show ‘In the Dark’ she knows that she will be tested to the limits of her endurance. Beating eleven competitors in a series of survival tasks deep in the forest will be the ultimate challenge before she returns home to start a family.”

Zoo and the other contestants are in the Adirondack Mountains in the United States. The forest through which they move is very challenging, difficult and downright dangerous at times. The contestants have to compete against each other as well as the nightmare terrain. Early on we learn that the challenge only ends when there is just one left standing, when the rest have exited. It’s described as a sleazy reality show, with the contestants chosen for their physical attributes, not their abilities. And they are given nicknames to match: Waitress (the bimbo), Tracker (the strong, silent capable type), Asian Chick (obvious), The Exorcist (the nutter) and Zoo (we never learn her real name) because of her day job in a zoo.

Two timelines
The story is told in two timelines. It begins with Zoo on her own some weeks into the show, now on what is described as the Solo Challenge. She is starving, struggling, only just managing to move through the hostile terrain and entirely alone.

The other timeline starts at the beginning, when we meet all the contestants, get to know them and follow them in the increasingly difficult (not to say sadistic) challenges. We learn that initially they are allowed to work in teams, and that every evening they return to camp where the show host gives them the next day’s challenge. They are followed closely everywhere by cameramen, who are not allowed to interact with them and whose job it is to get all their reactions and emotions. They are also led to believe there are hidden cameras everywhere, so their reactions can be captured even if no cameraman is near.

Something far worse
Back in the later timeline, Zoo is in a bad way.  As she moves through the wilderness alone, she finds a number of gruesome ‘props’, animatronic bodies and suchlike. But she is resourceful and carries on, knowing that these things are just meant to unsettle the contestants. But we, the reader, have known from the very first chapter that something unimaginable and horrific is beginning to happen in the outside world and encroaching on the woods. And we soon realise that the ‘props’ are no longer props, but something far worse.

Zoo becomes increasingly unsettled by what she believes to be mind games being played by the producers of the show. But she is too stubborn to call a halt, and by the time we encounter her I think there would be no way anyone other than herself could get her out of there.

Unrelenting tension
This book isn’t for the faint-hearted! The tension rolls off the pages and you keep wondering when Zoo will realise that she is no longer on the show but on her own in the wilderness. I finally decided it was a kind self-defence mechanism. The longer she could kid herself, the longer she could keep herself together.

I liked the way this book is written. The two timelines complement each other very well. We get to know all the contestants, and we get to experience their bizarre challenges with them. And we see how Zoo becomes as capable as she is in the present timeline. The descriptions of the Reality Show officials are spot on, just as sleazy and ratings-obsessed as you would imagine.

The book becomes increasingly dark, grim and scary but I couldn’t put it down. It’s not crime fiction, or even a thriller. It’s maybe more of an apocalyptic story, reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s a really good book and I give it 4-Stars.
Review by: Freyja