AFTERTIME starts out with heroine Cassandra “Cass” Dollar running away from a bunch of zombies, called “Beaters;” she runs at night because the Beaters don’t see well in darkness. She also is trying to hide from “normal” humans who haven’t been changed by a virus into Beaters because she’d been attacked by Beaters, yet survived without being permanently turned into a zombie. Cass is a direct, honest survivor who wants to fully recover from being attacked, then go back to get her daughter, Ruthie, who’d been left with friends.
Because Cass is such an appealing character, she mitigates much of the horrific world around her; she sees possibilities in the “aftertime,” the time after a terrible nuclear and biological war has devastated much of the Earth. She wants to survive, so she does her best to eat “kaysev,” a biological plant-construct that was dropped to various places in the last successful act of the United States government; kaysev has a gingery undertaste and supposedly contains all the vitamins, minerals, and proteins a human needs to survive.
When Cass is threatened by a teenage girl, she doesn’t hesitate; she turns the girl’s knife back on her, but refuses to kill the girl as Cass fully understands why the girl was worried (as Cass looks a sight due to being attacked by the Beaters). That’s because the Beaters eat any tissue they possibly can, including their own. They leave muscle and sinew alone, and for some reason tend to leave people’s faces alone until everything else on their victims’ bodies has been eaten, but this leaves a victim like Cass looking worse than if she were “merely” dead.
Anyway, Cass and this girl end up in an enclave that used to be a school; this is a big, defensible place and many food stores have been brought there to supplement the omnipresent kaysev. This is where she meets Smoke, an enigmatic man who believes that the remnants of humanity must choose their own destinies and not have anything forced upon them as some groups, like the Rebuilders, want to do. These types of groups are more like the Posse Comitatus, or possibly the group that was led by David Koresh in Waco, TX, years ago, than anything resembling a government; they believe in authoritarian rule and nothing but, and individual life and liberty need not apply.
Well, as you might imagine, Cass is a strong individualist and she definitely agrees with Smoke’s worldview. She figures it was bad enough that America lost nearly everything in the bombing, including any health research, most medical personnel and most prescription medications. The only thing that can compound all this suffering is for those who believe in “peace through strength” to take over; that’s one reason she throws in with Smoke nearly immediately as she convinces Smoke to help her find her daughter.
But when they get to Cass’s former enclave (in a library, another highly defensible place), they find that Ruthie is gone — she’d been sent along with many other young girls to a religious place that promised to treat the kids well as the people in the library have been beset by the Rebuilders. But the religious place also has a horrible reputation, and it’s near San Diego while all of this other action has been in whatever is left of California’s Central Valley; Cass and Smoke will need a lot of luck to get there, considering the best way of getting anywhere now is on foot as gas stations are out of fuel and many abandoned cars have been left as obstacles on the roads.
So the race is on: will Cass and Smoke find Ruthie? If so, should they leave Ruthie where she is no matter how bad those religious folks are, or should they break Ruthie out? And will their romance survive all of this dramatic action? (While I will not answer these questions, ponder the whole notion of “romantic suspense” for a bit and you’ll find your answers. Guaranteed.)
The adventures of Cass and Smoke are absorbing, as is their tentative romance, while the suspense is excellent. Further, I like Littlefield’s writing style; it’s direct, it’s fast-moving, and there’s enough internal monologue going on that I didn’t have to guess at what Cass’s motivations were except for the romance (which made sense; who’d think any sort of romance could happen so soon after an apocalyptic event?). The various styles of human life after the worst has happened include some awful, atrocious actions which have been noted by Cass rather than wallowing in it (as have some other dystopian novels, including the recently reviewed SOFT APOCALYPSE); this allows for the full range of humanity to be seen, experienced, and understood, yet also allows for hope to win over despair.
As odd as this may seem, AFTERTIME is a hopeful dystopia that focuses on what humans do right — care about their children, form new friendships with worthwhile people, fall in love with other decent human beings, and survive whatever the world throws at them — rather than what humans do wrong. And as such, I recommend AFTERTIME wholeheartedly to anyone looking for a quick, fast read with some dramatic subtextual referents.
— reviewed by Barb