Aftertime (Luna Books)
I don’t often come across novels that blow me away. That might stem from the fact that I’ve read so much that it’s hard to take me by surprise anymore. It can still happen, though, and it happened fairly recently. On a whim, I picked up Sophie Littlefield’s Aftertime and couldn’t put it down.
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“Awakening in a bleak landscape as scarred as her body, Cass Dollar vaguely recalls surviving something terrible. Having no idea how many weeks have passed, she slowly realizes the horrifying truth: Ruthie has vanished.
And with her, nearly all of civilization.
Where once-lush hills carried cars and commerce, the roads today see only cannibalistic Beaters—people turned hungry for human flesh by a government experiment gone wrong.
In a broken, barren California, Cass will undergo a harrowing quest to get Ruthie back. Few people trust an outsider, let alone a woman who became a zombie and somehow turned back, but she finds help from an enigmatic outlaw, Smoke. Smoke is her savior, and her safety.
For the Beaters are out there.
And the humans grip at survival with their trigger fingers. Especially when they learn that she and Ruthie have become the most feared, and desired, of weapons in a brave new world.”
There is so much that I liked about this novel that it’s tough to figure out where to start. Littlefield has balanced all of the elements so well that they intermingle and play off of each other in a way that I don’t often see. Characters, plot, backstory, and setting have all been written with a rare skill and talent.
The setting is designed to please someone like me. The story takes place in Northern California, and in fact references places that I have visited. With so few books set in our area, I tend to enjoy the ones that do make Northern California their home. In this novel, it also adds to the brutality of what happens, because of that very familiarity. Readers who are not from this area will still enjoy the novel, and they will still feel the horror of what happens, but I think it will have a special poignancy for us residents.
For those who are squeamish, be advised that the novel does contain some scenes that verge on the gruesome. The zombies (here called Beaters) do not attack indiscriminately; rather, they have learned to drag a victim to their nests and consume them there, often while the poor person is still alive. The sheer terror and pain involved in these attacks comes through the pages and can be hard to read. Admittedly, I had to put the book down a few times and walk away because it was very disturbing to me. I wasn’t grossed out—a book that does that isn’t one that I want to read—but I was upset by the idea of such things happening. The author doesn’t delve too far into the grotesque, but she gives you just enough to bring across that sense of horror.
The story isn’t one of mere survival, although that’s the level that most inhabitants of the world have been reduced to. Rather, this story has a goal: Cass needs to get her daughter Ruthie back from those who are holding her. The fact that the novel has a purpose beyond just “survive the zombies and rebuild society” puts it several notches above other novels in the genre.
The author makes a daring choice with regards to her main character: Cass is a recovering alcoholic who was only weeks sober when society fell apart. Because of this, readers get to see the world through the eyes of someone who is uniquely unable to deal with it and, at the same time, uniquely poised to cope. Cass references AA and its philosophies a lot, and it gives a structure to how she functions within this terrible new world. At times, it’s heartbreaking to watch her struggles, because she tries so hard and suffers so much.
Sophie Littlefield is right up there with Mira Grant as the best zombie novelists on the shelf, and this is not praise that I give out lightly. Aftertime is a kick in the gut that is nonetheless one of the most fascinating and sobering reads you’ll ever find. Forget about The Walking Dead—grab this book and prepare to have your world shaken.
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on January 3, 2012.