So You Read ASHES a Year Ago

Need a quick refresher, a synopsis of who’s who and what’s going on? Well, you won’t get much in SHADOWS.  For story-telling purposes–plot, pacing and all that–I decided against a detailed recap.  SHADOWS pretty much picks up where ASHES left off and is a bigger and broader book, with a LOT going on, new characters to meet, new mysteries to unravel.

But I also realize it’s been a while for some of you, so if you DO need a memory-jog, read on.  If you haven’t read ASHES, shame on you.  But don’t despair; you’ve got time before SHADOWS hits shelves 9/25/12.

In any event, BEWARE: major spoilers ahead. Really, if you’ve not read ASHES, don’t go any further. Not only will you ruin the perfectly good time you might have had—because no synopsis can do justice to a novel—you will miss a lot of vital information that I can’t include.

Just saying.


The Zap: On what starts out to be a perfectly nice Saturday in October, a wave of e-bombs sends electromagnetic pulses sweeping through the sky. No one knows who did this, or why. In some ways, that’s not important. All that matters are the effects.

In an instant, the vast majority of the world’s adult population dies; power and communications grids are destroyed, and sophisticated electronics, crippled. (So that spiffy new iPad? It’s a brick.) Along the East and West Coasts, the detonation of low-altitude nukes above nuclear waste storage facilities, as well as other facilities going critical because backup generators do not kick in, spews fallout into the atmosphere, turning the moon green and the sunrises bloody. Everyone who might be able to fix anything is also history. In a flash, civilization collapses into a hellish, pre-industrial black hole.

Those still alive—the very young and the very old—must find a way to battle new enemies, not only fellow survivors organized into raiding parties and rigidly-ordered societies (like Rule, a very small, very insular village) but the Changed: teenagers you really don’t want to meet in a dark alley. Dogs are like canaries in a mine when it comes to the Changed: acutely sensitive and able to alert people to the Changed’s presence. There is also some suggestion that dogs know who is likely to Change or actively Changing.

A very few people have changed in a different way, developing super-senses that some are not afraid to use to their advantage. Still others are Spared, teenagers and young adults who should be dead but aren’t. No one knows why the Spared have survived, and without sophisticated computers, laboratories, or scientists, there’s really no way to find out. All kids are suddenly valuable commodities; the few Spared are also viewed with suspicion because no one is quite sure if the Change is over.

Many other, much older individuals with advanced Alzheimer’s or other senile dementias are suddenly Awakened, returning to their previous level of function.


Who’s Who:

Alex Adair: living with her aunt in Illinois after her mom, an ER doc, and dad, a cop, died in a helicopter crash three years ago. Suckier still, Alex carries a monster in her head: an inoperable brain tumor that’s stolen her sense of smell and many of her memories, especially those of her parents. After two years of failed chemotherapy, radiation, and experimental regimens, Alex has decided to call the shots for a change. As the novel opens, Alex has run off on what might well be a one-way backpacking trek through the Waucamaw Wilderness in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She intends to honor her parents’ last wishes and scatter their ashes from Mirror Point on Lake Superior. As it happens, she’s also got her dad’s service Glock, just in case she opts out of a return. After the Zap, Alex gets her sense of smell back in spades: a super-sense that also allows her to intuit emotions and, on one occasion, get a glimmer of what’s going on inside the mind of a wolf. Which is pretty funky. Much more to the point and like the dogs, she is able to detect the bloated roadkill stink of the Changed. Oh, and all of a sudden, every dog is her new best friend.

Ellie Cranford: sullen, uncooperative, a trifle whiny, a kid Alex has to keep herself from slapping silly. What can you say? The kid’s eight. Her dad’s KIA in Iraq; her mother split years back; and Ellie’s now being cared for by her grandfather, Jack, who might have the patience of a saint, but cut the kid a break. She hates camping, and it’s not like she hasn’t got good reason to be a little pissy anyway. Initially rescued by Alex and then Tom, Ellie is kidnapped by some very nasty adults who see her as a meal ticket.

Mina: Ellie’s dog, a Belgian Malinois, and formerly her dad’s MWD (military working dog). Mina also has the patience of a saint and packs a mean bite. The nasty adults take her, too.

Tom Eden: a young soldier and explosive ordinance specialist on leave from Afghanistan; a competent guy who complements Alex in a lot of ways. After Alex fends off a pack of wild dogs, Tom saves both Ellie and Alex by shooting his buddy, Jim, who’s gone through a major lifestyle change. Steady and calm, someone to whom Alex is instantly attracted, Tom also has a few secrets of his own. The biggest is just why he’s in the Waucamaw to begin with. Once they leave the (relative) safety of the Waucamaw—we’re talking wild dogs, booby traps, and kids who’ve suddenly decided that people make excellent Happy Meals—Tom is shot while trying to prevent the nasty adults from stealing Ellie.

Chris Prentiss: formerly from another town, Chris is the grandson of the Reverend Yeager and Rule’s de facto second-in-command. Dark and reserved, a bit of a brooder, Chris has an uncanny ability to find Spared, especially up north around Oren and its nearby Amish community. He falls for Alex in a big way. Despite her initial determination to escape from Rule, Alex eventually reciprocates.

Peter Ernst: Rule’s overall commander, although he takes his marching orders from the Council of Five, representatives from Rule’s founding families, who run the village. At 24, Peter is the oldest Spared and fiercely protective of Chris. Peter has a thing going with Sarah, one of Alex’s housemates.

Sarah, Tori, and Lena: Alex’s housemates and all refugees to whom Rule’s offered sanctuary. Of the three, Sarah’s a tad bossy; good-natured Tori alternately crushes on Greg (another Spared and part of Chris’s squad) and Chris and still makes a mean apple crisp. Taciturn, irreverent, and originally from that Amish community near Oren, Lena’s a girl with ‘tude. Having manipulated Peter, Lena once tried to escape only to be caught in the Zone, a no-man’s land buffer zone through which those who are Banned (i.e., kicked out of Rule for various and sundry offenses) must travel in order to leave Rule’s sphere of influence.

Reverend Yeager: a descendant of one of Rule’s original founding five families and filthy rich from having run a very profitable mining company, Yeager heads the Council of Five (the other members are Ernst, Stiemke, Prigge, Born). Before the Zap, Yeager was quietly dementing away in the Alzheimer’s wing of Rule’s hospice. After the Zap, Yeager was Awakened. Like Alex, he possesses a super-sense and can determine emotions and truthfulness through touch.

Jess: a tough cookie with a penchant for spouting Bible verses, Jess seems to have her own agenda when it comes to who should be making the decisions for Rule. She’s hot for Chris to stand up to his grandfather. For a variety of reasons—all of them very good—Chris is reluctant. Jess makes no secret of encouraging Chris and Alex to become, well, a little closer.

Matt Kincaid: scruffy, pragmatic, sharper than a tack, Kincaid is Rule’s only doctor. He is also an Awakened, though he has no super-sense. He is the only one who knows about Alex’s brain tumor as well as her super-sense of smell. Kincaid has suggested that the monster might be dead, dormant, or organizing into something entirely different.


Events Leading Up to the End:

After Tom is shot, he and Alex make it to a deserted convenience station. While there, Alex battles three brain-zapped teenagers and very nearly ends up as an appetizer. Already weak from his gunshot wound, which is also badly infected, Tom is even more seriously hurt when a brain-zapped kid takes a chunk of his neck. Although Alex treats him as best she can, they both know that he’ll die if she doesn’t go on alone to Rule and return with help. Before she leaves, they have a nice moment and Tom, who’s come close to admitting the truth about why he came north to begin with, promises to tell her everything once they’re reunited.

Alex makes it to Rule, acquiring an orphaned puppy on the way and having a close encounter with a wolf pack, but is nearly lynched by a mob of terrified adults who see kids her age as potential threats. Chris and his dog, Jet, rescue her. She convinces Chris and Peter to leave the relative safety of Rule and go back for Tom. When they arrive, however, Tom has vanished.

It is now the beginning of November. While on her way to meet the Council of Five, Alex picks up a scent she’s smelled before: one of the men, Harlan, who kidnapped Ellie (and stole the fanny pack with the ashes of Alex’s parents, a letter from her mother, and a Bible). Harlan confesses and says that he last saw Ellie and Mina weeks before and south of Rule. Harlan is Banned. Alex gets her parents’ ashes back, but the Bible and her mother’s letter are gone. Sensibly pointing out that they don’t have the manpower to mount a search and that Ellie could be anywhere at this point (or dead), Chris and Peter refuse to go after the little girl.

With nowhere else to go, the winter digging in, Ellie gone, and no idea if Tom is still alive, Alex really has no choice but to stay. This turns out to be moot since Rule has no intention of allowing the Spared to leave; indeed, the inhabitants of the village—extremely fundamentalist and maybe an offshoot of the Amish near Oren—are encouraged to see rescuing the Spared as a sort of holy grail. Furthermore, this is a very traditional society organized along gender-specific tasks.

Still, not everything is rotten. She’s apprenticed to Kincaid as an assistant and doctor-in-training. Banking on the day when she’ll be able to escape, she squirrels away odds and ends. Yet the months slip by and life develops a mind-numbing routine that begins to wear Alex down in a kind of acceptance. What Alex doesn’t count on is a growing friendship with and affection for Chris. Chris makes many overtures she rejects, but she does grow fond of him.

The holidays pass and then it’s January. Even though previous foraging expeditions have been successful, Rule’s beginning to run low on supplies. Forced to go ever further, Chris and Peter leave for Wisconsin. The morning they’re due to head out, Alex is unexpectedly shaken when she glimpses Chris and Lena in some sort of impassioned argument. (Alex’s mood doesn’t improve when Lena throws her arms around Chris.) Alex isn’t prepared for how hurt and jealous she feels. Frustrated because he’s made a promise to help Lena in some way, Chris can’t explain what they were arguing about. But he can kiss Alex, and boy, is it a doozy. Alex admits that she’s been afraid to let herself like him because that means she’s choosing to stay in Rule for the long term and giving up on Tom and Ellie. Chris leaves on his foraging expedition, and Alex seems content to wait for his return.


After several weeks, one splinter of Chris’s party—including Greg, who’s happily returning Tori’s major crush—returns with a gravely-ill boy they say Chris found near Oren. This is strange since it means that Chris broke off from the main party to go north instead of sticking with Peter and his men, who went west. In the course of taking care of the boy, Alex finds something of hers: a whistle her father gave her long ago and which she gave to Ellie. Unfortunately, the boy dies without regaining consciousness.

Yet, putting together bits and pieces she’s heard and learned over the months, Alex figures out that while Chris and the others might be gathering supplies, they’re also taking Spared wherever they can find them and, quite possibly—very probably—by force. In other words, they’re stealing kids.

Appalled by this and also galvanized by the discovery of her whistle, Alex makes the impulsive decision to hijack Kincaid’s horse and leave Rule by way of the Zone which is close to Jess’s house. She is stopped, however, by none other than Jess, who Alex now realizes is an Awakened with a super-sense of her own (hearing).

As it turns out, however, Jess has been waiting for Alex to make this decision and helps her escape. Jess’s rationale is, however, a little suspect. She doesn’t care so much about Alex; what Jess wants is for Chris to wake up to what Rule’s doing and mount a challenge to his grandfather. Chris has to want this badly enough, however, and Alex is the tool Jess will use to force Chris’s hand.

As Alex is escorted by Jess and her allies to the Zone, Chris suddenly gallops out of the woods. He’s returned early, and in the nick of time. Frantic to stop Alex from passing into the Zone—screaming that she doesn’t know what she’s doing—Chris is forcibly stopped by Jess’s men and then clubbed unconscious by Jess. Although Alex tries to help Chris, Jess forces her out at gunpoint.

Once away from Rule and many miles into the Zone, Alex comes upon a shocking tableau: a sort of processional way marked by the flayed corpses of wolves dangling from trees; piles of clothing and jewelry; bones; and a pyramid of human heads, all in various stages of decomposition, which suggests this has been going on for a while. One frozen head she recognizes: Harlan, the man who stole Ellie and was Banned months before.

And she is discovered by a pack of five Changed: all in winter gear (although two wear wolf skins and cowls); all armed; all looking very well-fed.

It is then that Alex realizes the truth.

Rule isn’t fighting the Changed.

Rule is feeding them.


So You Read ASHES a Year Ago — 308 Comments

  1. I just wanted to extend my praise to you,Ilsa.
    I happened across Ashes at a “blind book date” event at my local library, and Im very glad I did. Your book has been the first in a long time to grip my attention. It really has a fantastic balance of dark themes and moral questioning. I know you write for a young adult audience, but I wanted you to know that I as a college student, along with my friends, are big fans!
    I hope to see more of your books in the near future. May inspiration be plentiful!

  2. Why, thank you! That’s really nice of you to say, Sierra, and I truly appreciate it. I’m always happy when my books find new audiences.

    Thanks for making my morning a little brighter 🙂

  3. Mrs. Bick,
    My name is Katy and I most recently read your book Ashes. Aside from being flat out amazed by it, I was slightly confused by the ending. I simply have minimal questions. So to start, Rule was feeding the changed people? Why were they helping the changed, dangerous people that everyone feared? Why weren’t they just killing them? Was Chris a bad guy after all?

    I would very much appreciate if you would take the time to answer these questions I am dying to completely understand!

  4. Hey, Katy:
    First off, so glad you liked the book. I can certainly appreciate you being a little confused at the end (think of how poor Alex feels)–but I’d suggest that the answers to your questions (and more) can be found in the sequels, SHADOWS and MONSTERS.
    Enjoy! 🙂

  5. I just finished your book and I spent about 40 minutes looking for answers.
    I loved the book but I just really wanted her to find tom and Ellie.
    I liked the ending but it did confuse me a little bit, but I can’t wait to start the next one 🙂

  6. Hey Ilsa, great writing. Ashes really gripped me from beginning to end. I happened by this book from my librarian at our high school. I just wanted to say it’s such a different kind of book and I absolutely enjoyed it. I can’t wait to read more of your work.

  7. Well, thanks, Caleb! This is what I love about librarians: they really DO care and get to know their kids. So I’m glad that my book found you 🙂 Enjoy the rest of the series and my other work.

    If you don’t enjoy, though…don’t tell me 😉

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