Our protagonist in Ashes is Alex, a teenage girl who has decided to take back control of her life by not accepting further treatment for her brain tumour. After years of unsuccessful chemo and experimental treatments, she has taken the ashes of her dead parents for a hike and plans to scatter them. She runs into an old man, his granddaughter, and a dog in the middle of the woods, and then Something Happens. Alex never learns exactly what happens, so we don’t either; but it appears a massive electrical magnetic pulse has zapped all electronics, killed everyone between the ages of about twenty to sixty, and has caused a few other side-effects (to be revealed later). The grandfather dead, Alex takes on responsibility for the little girl and the two set off for civilization. On their way they run into a pack of wild dogs, and then into a pack of wild teenagers. Apparently the electrical impulse rebooted their brains and they’ve become animalistic, feral cannibals. Obviously. Alex and the child escape with help from another young adult who didn’t devolve into a monster and the rest of the Ashes follows our newly-formed family unit as they try to survive.
This world has some very interesting elements. The older generation becomes the last bastion of civilization. Retired nurses, teachers, soldiers, and others are pressed back into service to protect and save themselves and small children. “The Changed,” as the newly wild teenagers are called, vary in ability and cognition – some are capable of hunting in groups, building loose social packs and using tools, while others function at a very red-in-tooth-and-claw level. Those teenagers or young adults who did not change, including Alex, are referred to as “the Saved.” Animals, especially dogs, are sensitive to the Changed young people and will fight to get away from them. Some of these ideas are fairly original in the crowded YA apocalyptic field. Zombies are overplayed; so create the Changed instead – all the terror of man-eating zombies with even more cunning. Societies where all the adults have died have been done – keep the seniors, just for variety. However, Bick also includes some easily recognizable elements. Part one of Ashes is pretty standard survival-in-wilderness; the rest of the series gets into the (also pretty standard) survival in a community with shadowy rules and alliances, covert power structures, and lots of secrets.
I’ve encountered some pretty serious horror in YA books. Cannibalism is not actually all that rare in dystopian/apocalyptic settings. Packs of rage-filled or murderous mindless teens or children? Also old news. But I have to admit that the stomach churning torture scenes in Shadows are some of the nastiest I’ve read. Instead of focusing on one main character, as in Ashes, Shadows splits perspectives and provides us with a slightly broader viewpoint on what is happening in Alex’s world and who the major players are. Unfortunately one of these major players ends up in the hands of an unambiguous villain (comparable, I’d say, to the Governor from The Walking Dead) and we readers get to suffer with the victim. Bick is also unafraid to increase the horror level with graphic descriptions of blood, snapping bones, and gut-slurping gore. Needless to say this is not a read for the weak of heart – or stomach.
So who would I recommend it to? Anyone who finds this particular combination of elements appealing: story of a strong, capable female heroine in a world where civilization and technology have utterly collapsed, a side of romance, vicious zombie-esque monsters and lots (LOTS) of gore that piles ever higher as the trilogy progresses. Click HERE to place your hold at TBPL, or click on the book cover for more information over on GoodReads.