Review: Shadows by Ilsa J Bick

Shadows (Ashes #2)
Ilsa J Bick

Released September 25, 2012
528 pages
YA / Zombies / Horror

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The Apocalypse does not end. The Changed will grow in numbers. The Spared may not survive.

Even before the EMPs brought down the world, Alex was on the run from the demons of her past and the monster living in her head. After the world was gone, she believed Rule could be a sanctuary for her and those she’d come to love.

But she was wrong.

Now Alex is in the fight of her life against the adults, who would use her, the survivors, who don’t trust her, and the Changed, who would eat her alive.

Welcome to Shadows, the second book in the haunting apocalyptic Ashes Trilogy: where no one is safe and humans may be the worst of the monsters.

Ashes was the very first e-ARC I read via Netgalley last year and it rocked my face off. Not realizing it was the beginning of a series, I was caught a little off-guard by the punch-you-in-the-gut cliffhanger of an ending and wrote my review while both praising and cursing Ilsa J Bick. So of course Shadows was on the top of my NEED RIGHT NOW! list this year and it was quite a bit more of the same creepy world full of not-dead zombie-like teenagers with a huge emphasis on the word “more”.

Ashes was not a short book, clocking in at over 450 pages, but Shadows is over 500 pages and unfortunately there are places when you feel that length. This is probably due to the book suddenly branching out into having five different main characters inside of four completely separate plot lines. Of course this is necessary for Bick to continue down the paths of all the plots Alex – our main character from the first book – set in motion simply by entering into these other people’s lives. Still it becomes a little bogged down, especially when large chunks of the story involve people trampling through snow storms for chapter after chapter.

Despite being the featured character in the first book, Alex doesn’t get a lot of screen time here or at least after the first half of the book, she takes a backseat to the stories of everyone else. She spends a majority of her time as prisoner, passively waiting for an opportunity to escape, so the badass girl of action from the first volume is largely missing until the very end. This was a little disappointing considering how wonderful of a strong female protagonist Alex made in the first book.

Another story line follows Lena and Chris, two teenagers from Rule who Alex befriended during her time there. They have found themselves in the middle of a giant conspiracy and are forced from their homes. Bick bounces a bit between telling their trek from Chris’ and Lena’s varying viewpoints because there is a fair amount of secret keeping and internal panic involved with this storyline. It also lacks much action, though the suspense of when secrets might be found out allows for a bit of narrative tension.

Then there’s Peter, former leader of Rule’s military force, who is snatched up by a militia after his scavenging crew is ambushed. Peter’s story has firmly convinced me that – were Bick not already a licensed psychologist – she would need serious mental help. He has the shortest amount of screen time, but it’s an emotionally and mentally scarring ride that you spend with him. By the time the story ends, when most others are in mortal peril (cliffhangers, of course, but I was prepared this time!), Peter finds himself more in a moral quandary that had me gagging and trying to not consider what I would do in a similar situation.

Finally for readers like me, who cursed Bick for leaving Tom’s well-being hanging between “eaten by a zombie” or “crawled into the woods to die from a gunshot wound”, the book picks up with Tom and fills in the hole left by his absence. His storyline has the most action, but is also filled with so many characters lying through their teeth that I started feeling a bit confused about what the book had explicitly told me about the Rule conspiracies and what I had pieced together on my own being wrong. But I don’t care. Tom is an awesome character going through awesome challenges in all of his soldier awesomeness. At least for me, he also had the most emotional of the storylines, capped by a heartbreaking ending that might have made me curse Bick once more, for old time’s sake.

The big unanswered question that feeds throughout Shadows is whether the cannibalistic heathen teenagers who turned soon after the apocalyptic event are evolving and if the few teenagers who didn’t turn might find themselves slowly waking up one morning to the possibility of desiring human flesh for breakfast. I always enjoyed Bick’s take on zombies, especially considering these zombie-esque creatures are not actually dead and maintain an intelligence that makes them even more lethal. While this question of “Is the worst over or are we all going to end up this way?” was a hugely important theme for these stories, it sometimes felt as though it took over the story to the impediment of the plot and pacing.

Despite that, I did enjoy Shadows. I might not rave about it as I did for Ashes, but it is a solid, creepy follow up to the disturbing images burned into my brain from the first book. Bick’s writing continues to leave me gagging and cringing as I read. I mean, who else will compare zombies eating human flesh to judges from Top Chef? It those moments of unexpected macabre cleverness that makes me enjoy her writing so much and why it haunted me whenever I had to put the book down.

I look forward to the conclusion to this series, aptly titled Monsters. With as much action that seems necessary for all four plot lines to resolve themselves, I have a feeling it’s going to be a breakneck thrill ride with plenty of moments to make me gag, laugh and cringe in absolute horror. I just hope at least one of those four (preferably Tom) receives at least a moderately happy not-a-monster ending, but I’m not going to hold my breath.