Updated: Aug 22, 2019
I'm late to the game with Will Hill's 'After the Fire', a YA that has made the Zoella Book Club 2017 list and has been majorly hyped over the summer. I didn't know any of that when I bought it: I'd picked up because I'd needed a second book to go with my 2 for £7 deal that I'd picked up in Tesco (the first was 'Good Me, Bad Me' by Ali Land, which I reviewed back in October). I chose this one because at the time I'd been mulling over one or two novels I wanted to write that would concern a cult, and I decided to keep this book on the back burner for when I was ready to write as a source of inspiration. It's interesting that although both 'After the Fire' and 'Good Me Bad Me' are, on the face of it, very different novels, they both feature adults abusing their roles as guardians, and teenage protagonists dealing with the aftermath of terrible events.
Hill takes us straight into the action - my favourite kind of opening - with our protagonist running for her life through a compound under siege. Bullets fly as buildings go up in flames, and within two pages we have a fatal gunshot wound, and the protagonist in direct peril when someone fires at her specifically. Through the fear, the danger, and the death surrounding our protagonist, something even worse is revealed: the possibility of children burning to death.
Initially I was disappointed by such a quick resolution to this threat, but this part of the assault is relatively unimportant: it forms the crux of the novel, sure, but only as a frame of reference for after and before the fire.
Following the opening section is After (the chapters aren't numbered, only identified as 'Before' and 'After'), where teenager Moonbeam is recovering, from both a physical injury sustained in the fire and the effects of living at The Base. She drops some hints as to what might have happened back there, and although the reader is getting to know her as a person, I was more keen to delve into the past and find out what had happened in the compound. Hill sure knows how to draw out the tension. In her conversations with Dr Hernandez and, later, with Agent Carlyle, she is drawn back to Before, when her world revolved around The Prophet Father John, his rules, and the brutal punishments if they were broken.
The terms used ("Governments", "Brothers and Sisters", "The Base" and "The Prophet") gives a good indication of what kind of environment we find ourselves in, and the conflation of "the Government" and "Servants of the Serpent" melds extreme religion with anti-government conspiracy theorists, combining the two typical kinds of cult that we read about in the media when something terrible happens or is uncovered.
The 'After' sections don't hold as much tension or action as the 'Before' chapters, but they also have their fair share of drama: some of the survivors are finding it difficult to acclimatise to life Outside, and even as Moonbeam opens up and shares details - however painful - of her life at The Base, there is something she is still reticent to share. After all she's told them, what could be so terrible she feels compelled to never share it with anyone?
In the first 'Before' extract, my favourite secondary character, Nate Childress, joins the Family. He's good-looking, charming, and masculine - and Moonbeam falls head over heels for him. Her expression of pure teenage lust is the most relatable aspect of a girl that is living a life almost impossible to imagine. Moonbeam is actually one of my favourite YA protagonists: she cries and breaks down, but she's capable of feats of bravery and selflessness; she accepts her lot or rallies against the system, but she is never self-pitying. She's not Katniss Everdeen leading the cult members to salvation, but rather one girl trying to make the best out her own situation. It has a good ending - not the one I wanted, but it felt realistic and appropriate. If anyone is a survivor rather than a victim, it's Moonbeam.
As Will Hill points out in the Author's Note, this is a work of fiction, although quite clearly based on the Waco Siege (Father John uses the fake name 'James Carmel', a nod to the Mount Carmel Center where David Koresh and the Branch Davidians made their apocalyptic stand against ATF and FBI agents in 1993). It was also reminiscent of an autobiography I read years ago called Not Without My Sister, the story of three girls born into a cult. For similar novels, check out this list, which features Chuck Palahniuk, last year's summer read The Girls (recommended if you enjoyed After the Fire, although a bit harder going) and the intriguing-sounding The Followers, by Rebecca Wait, which is going straight on my TBR for 2018.