The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

All Wars are Planned by Older Men (Review: Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick)

Ilsa J. Bick
Quercus 2012

Shadows is the second book in the series that began with Ashes. As such, this review contains spoilers for the first book (you can find a review for Ashes here). You have been warned.

It’s tough being a teenager. All those strange changes, urges and suspicion that you might be completely different to everyone else.  In Alex’s world, it’s even tougher – because those changes might be the everyday hormonal shifts of the teenage years or they might alterations that change you into something entirely different, entirely awful and entirely terrifying.  As the Changed (or Chuckies) roam unchecked, the world that Alex now inhabits is polarised: old and young; power-hungry and lost.  Alex, on finding herself seemingly led into a trap, is now the prisoner of a group of Changed who seem eerily cognisant while Tom, having found shelter with an older couple is again alone – until coming across an old man and a dangerous plan.  Chris and Lena struggle through a snow-stricken countryside, attempting to locate an Amish settlement and Peter, recently abducted, finds himself at the mercy of a figure more terrifying than all of the Changed put together.  Linking them all is an epic struggle for dominance and nothing is certain bar the fact that all roads lead to Rule.

Alex has really come into her own.  Always tough, she (thanks, in part, to her time in Rule) now has skills that aid both herself and those she comes into contact with.  Oddly, they also seem to make her useful to the Changed who now hold her.  Her main concern in Shadows is trying to stay one step ahead of her captors and thereby remain, er, uneaten but at the same time she’s desperately trying to figure out how recent events are inter-related.  Of all the characters, she is the one who comes closest to seeing the big picture in terms of Rule and its surrounds.  Ironic, as she is the only character not actively travelling with someone closely linked to the town.  At least, not that she’s aware off.  She remains a compelling character – one whom you’d definitely want on your side – although by this point in Bick’s story likability has become null and void.  It’s all about survival and Alex remains almost coldly focused, if not unkind, throughout her story.

Tom comes into his own in Shadows.  As a believable as a traumatised soldier as he is a young man fighting to get back to the girl he cares for, his determination is palpable and his distrust of those around him satisfying in a book where double-speak is order of the day.  Tom is an interesting mix of conscience and practicality but at heart seems inherently good – which makes his character development towards the end of the book incredibly moving.  His is an interesting situation in that he is unwilling to trust those he finds himself with but sees little choice but to go along with their spurious and possibly fatal plotting.  Chris and Lena also have much reason to distrust their companion, but are so busy trying to survive a treacherous journey that their story becomes one of basic survival.  Cleverly, it is with these two, more than the rest, that Bick explores the science of the Change and looks at the fear that it may not be over.  Lastly, Peter languishes in a prison that is as much made of irony as of bars. Victim of the terrifying Finn he finds himself used as a tool in a ghastly experiment and his circumstances are hands down the most horrific. His situation is fascinatingly awful.

Story-wise, Shadows is a sprawling, monstrous thing.  Character after character after character emerge from the woodwork and keeping track of them is often confusing and difficult.  At the heart of the story lies Rule, in this book represented largely by two older men, Nathan and Weller.  Both seem intent on drawing all ends towards the middle and their dealings with Rule, Chris, Lena and Tom comprise of misinformation layered upon half-truths layered upon lies layered upon a sly cunning that is as chilling as any of the actual Changed.  Terrifyingly, there is also the suggestion that both men may be tied to Finn and his band of Militia.  At times Shadows is confusing.  In fact, it’s fairly confusing throughout – leaving the reader as nonplussed as the characters. This is a style that will work better for some readers than others but which represents bold, often clever writing nonetheless.  Genre-wise, Shadows has firmly moved this series from the realm of post-apocalyptic fiction to that of pure horror.  Not for the faint-hearted, Bick has proved herself to be a mistress of the truly distressing and the scenes of torture, violence and attack are bone-chilling to say the least.

As with the best horror, Bick asks readers to decide who the real monsters are in her world.  The Changed with their grisly appetite and immoral lifestyle, or the old men, gone to seed, who suddenly find power once more within their grasp. It’s terribly effective and will have readers bemoaning humanity while paradoxically rooting for it to triumph. The closing chapters are as unrelentingly bleak and brutal as the rest of the book yet set up some fascinating conundrums for Monsters, the third and final book of the series.  A must for horror fans (although, you might want to take notes to aid in tracking the multiple and complex story lines) this is something different for YA and a worthy follow-up to the hugely successful Ashes.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Thank you to Quercus for providing us with a copy to review. Shadows is available now. Ilsa Bick will also be dropping into The Mountains of Instead at the end of the month to discuss her vision for the series.
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