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.

336 thoughts on “So You Read ASHES a Year Ago”

  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 😉

  8. Hi lisa, I’m Tamara i loove your books Ashes BUT what is this for a bad fucking shit ending? (sry for these words) Why aren’t you continuing?? I was not only confused it’s like you hit me in my freaking face! Can you please write one last book with a concluding ending of Ashes! I just finshed the book 3 min ago! I have so many questions that can only be answered by another book. I’m also sure I’m not the only one that would appreciate it. Thank you for reading my comment and I didn’t ment to hurt your feelings.
    (P.S. I hope there are not to much orthographic mistakes I’m from switzerland)

  9. Hi Mrs. Bick
    I am doing a book report on Ashes book 1 and I had one question.
    Did Jess have a super-sense?

  10. Hey, Jordan:
    I’m so sorry it’s taken so long for me to get back to you! (Something about my site forwarding my mail…but no matter.)

    First off, thanks so much for writing in. That you did would suggest you liked the books–always a good thing! 😉

    At this point…I’m on the fence. I actually wrote about it a while back: if I do return to this trilogy, it would have to be because there’s more story to tell that I haven’t yet and the characters are just BEGGING me to get on with it. Having said that, I have a few ideas, but I am also trying to finish another book first. So…we’ll see.

    Have a good Thanksgiving!

  11. Hey, Tamara: I’m sorry, dear; I can’t tell if you only read the first book, ASHES, or have finished the entire trilogy. If you’re upset by the way I ended the first book…yes, that was very deliberate and I had these artsy-fartsy reasons for that which I can go into if you want. But let’s just say that if civilization and niceties are breaking down for Alex, they ought to break down for you, too.

    If you’re referring to the way I ended the entire trilogy (the last two books are SHADOWS and MONSTERS, respectively)…well, I ended it that way for people to use their imagination and to allow me to return if I decide to.

    So help me out here. Which book are you upset about?

    Don’t worry about your mistakes; your English is far better than my German ;-).

  12. Hey, back,

    Well…what do you think? Does she? I think I hint at it in the first book. 😉 Go back and look at the last few chapters.

  13. Hi Ilsa

    I’ve just finished Monsters and I love it! Gotta know – will there be another one? Please say yes!

    Best regards

  14. So glad you enjoyed! As for another…possibly, but the characters have to really come at me with a story they need to tell. I do have ideas for a sequel, though. Just not the right time to do it for me. So…we shall see!

  15. Hey (i’m Tamara again)
    I finished the third books and i am so upset about it because it end so … Like you take out the last 20 pages. For me it it was like “ok OMG now on the next pages i see what happend between alex and wolf” and then BAMM the asknowledgement. First i thought i skip accidently pages. It was really shocked.
    I enjoy that you reply to my comment. :))

  16. Hey, Tamara (again) 😉

    Yes, I know I drive people nuts with that. Does make you think, though, and that’s what I’m after; I want folks to think about what they’ve read and what might happen next.

    So what do you think happens?

  17. Hi Ilsa,

    I’m a super fan girl of the ashes series I’ve read ashes, shadows, and monsters. I’m doing a book report on ashes an it was amazing that you put up this awesome site. Thanks for being so cool.

    Adreana Jolena

  18. Thank you, sweetie. I’m so glad you like the series!

    As for the website . . .it’s an *okay* website; I’ve been very neglectful lately. So thanks for reminding me that I should really write a thing or two 🙂

  19. Hi lisa sorry for the late Answer. I don’t know that why i read book and don’t write them and all you write is over my imagination so thats tye reason why i ask you.
    Tamara (again)

  20. Well, then, I’m afraid you’re going to be a little disappointed. I’ve left it vague on purpose because I not only want folks to use their imagination but also allow myself wiggle-room in case I decide to come back and write more in this world. So… I’m afraid I can’t commit to anything definitive. Sorry, dear!

  21. Hi I understand its only im not the creative one but yeah. And i have a question how do you connect all? I mean how do you think so complex with so many characters ? Do you habe a mindmap/pinwall? So are you imagine it all while you are writing or do you know all already befor you write the first book, how the third Book ends?

  22. Hi Lisa
    Finished reading the trilogy yesterday night and must say just couldn’t keep the books away. Thoroughly enjoyed the experience and hope that a fourth book too. 🙂

  23. Hey, Tamara…well, I don’t have a pinwall or cork board or anything like that. I guesss I just…know my people? I write out a short bio for every character (like, a paragraph or so) and then that’s it. The rest is just in the ol’ noggin.

    I THOUGT I knew how the third book was supposed to end; had the scene all mapped out and everything, even the last line. But I wrote that three years before I actually got there, and by then, what had seemed so right wasn’t. So nothing is set in stone; you’re not the same person in three years time as you are when you have the idea and neither are your characters.

  24. The books are really good but I listened to them on audio and the voice went to screech almost screaming. It is very distracting and all you can do is turn it down or take it away from your ear.I understand putting feeling into it but it was a bit to much and I almost had to stop listening.

  25. Hey, there! I’d say the book’s tone is dark, right? I mean, it’s about scrambling to survive, but I also think the whole series ends on a more hopeful note. I have another series out there, THE DARK PASSAGES, and I sure hope I’ve got other awesome series in me ;-). So stay tuned, and thanks for getting in touch!

  26. Loved the trilogy. Read and listened to finish asap. I loved the audio. As soon as I finished book 3 I started to look for Book 4. I’d love another story about Alex and Wolf/Chris/Tom. Talk about your girl-boy-boy-boy quadrangle. What a quandary for Alex. I’d like to see her end up with Wolf.

  27. Well, I do have ideas. I just have to wait for the characters to tell me when they’re ready . . . but what a quandry a quadrangle would be! 😉

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