I picked this up before NYALitFest as Will Hill was going to be there and I thought this book sounded really interesting and quite different. I’m morbidly fascinated by cults (I think most people who I’ve spoken to are) and this is all about a young girl who was in a cult dealing with life straight after a huge disaster.
After the Fire follows Moonbeam, a 17 year old girl who has just gotten out of the cult, The Lord’s Legion, after being inside the fence for most of her life. She speaks to psychiatrist, Dr. Hernandez and FBI agent, Agent Carlyle, about life within the fence, the events on the day of the fire and and how she feels about everything that has happened both to her and around her. It’s a fascinating read with great character development and an excellent plot.
Me and Sarah introduced the panel at NYALitFest that Will Hill appeared on along with M. A. Bennett. It was a panel about YA thrillers but the first thing Will actually said was that he wasn’t sure if he would class his book as a thriller. After reading it, I agree. It is suspenseful and tense at times when you don’t know what is going to happen next but, to me, it doesn’t come across as a thriller. It has elements of mystery to it but I think because of the flitting between past and present with the present focusing on Moonbeam undergoing talking therapy, it doesn’t elicit feelings that thrillers usually would.
As I just mentioned, the story is told in two time frames: before the fire and after the fire. The ‘after’ chapters follow Moonbeam in hospital and recovering from her physical injuries as well as working with Dr. Hernandez to talk through what has happened and how she feels. The ‘before’ chapters are set before the fire and events leading to the end of the Lord’s Legion, which are revealed throughout the book. These chapters show how life was inside the cult for Moonbeam and others and how things changed over the years. Though these sections were not in order of time, it was never confusing to read. Many of the ‘before’ chapters were followed by/following a therapy session and their conversation was linked directly to the ‘before’ events so this made it flow really well as there was often, if not always, reasoning behind the flashback.
I really did enjoy this book a lot. It felt very different to a lot I have read, particularly within YA. There was not a black and white answer for whether many of the characters were good or bad as this would greatly simplify it. Of course, some of the characters were awful human beings who did terrible things to others but there were also some who were brainwashed or didn’t feel like they had a choice in their own life. I felt Moonbeam’s emotions very strongly and I think empathy for all the survivors was evoked really well. I loved how observant Moonbeam was – she noticed so much about things going on and how people reacted and hearing her inner thoughts about this was such an interested part of the book, especially during her therapy sessions.
She noticed things about Dr Hernandez and Agent Carlisle which were really observant of her to spot. By this, I mean the way they acted around her and in particular sessions; she was very astute to what they seemed to want from her which is interesting particularly as she hadn’t interacted with people outside of the Lords Legion. They were all brainwashed by Father John that Outsiders were evil and servants of the Devil who are not to be spoken to or trusted. She did struggle with this, even though she had been doubting Father John and her wider beliefs for a long while. After all, it was ingrained into her that every outsider was a liar and had the worst intentions. Despite this, she began to trust her own instinct and feelings which, as I say, were very astute. She was cautious but began figuring out for herself, with help from others who had her best interests at heart, what to believe and who to trust.
Something else I greatly appreciated was that it wasn’t at all fully hopeless. There was a lot of hope in this story considering how harrowing some of the things were that Moonbeam went through. It was a great theme throughout as even quite early on we had some sparks of hope for all the survivors. Often in books about traumatic events, there can be slim signs of light in the future but this was really quite emotional and showed both awful reactions and aftermaths but also some hopeful outcomes for survivors too.
I would truly recommend this book! It has some difficult themes so be aware of that but it also was great at going through Moonbeam’s emotions (plus snippets of other’s emotions) throughout. Let me know what you thought if you’ve read it or if you want to read it!