Book Review: The Last Survivors series by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Reading Ashfall by Mike Mullin this week brought to mind another powerful young adult series about a global natural disaster and its aftermath. I read The Last Survivors series (by Susan Beth Pfeffer) last year. This trilogy also deals with teens struggling for survival in the wake of a catastrophe. I have no idea if the science of this series makes any sense whatsoever, but despite that, the books are gripping and well-written, and I thought I’d pass along these mini-reviews for any YA fans who missed the books when they came out:

Book 1: Life As We Knew It

This young adult novel starts on familiar ground — the diary of a teen-aged girl, with the not-too-unusual interests of boys, high school, figure skating, and the internet. Miranda’s world quickly changes when an asteroid collides with the moon, knocking its orbit out of whack, and creating worldwide catastrophe. Tsunamis, floods, volcanoes, and earthquakes destroy life as it once existed, and Miranda’s world narrows to the singular focus of survival. Miranda and her family struggle to stretch their meager food supply and to survive the ghastly winter once the sun has been blocked by volcanic ash, and it’s a mesmerizing peek into a life of desperation. The author does a masterful job of portraying the bleakness, the suffering, and the despair of the family as they count the few remaining cans in the pantry and realize how many days they have left before they starve. I could feel the piercing cold in my bones as I read Life As We Knew It, and couldn’t put it down. Well done!

Book 2: The Dead and the Gone

The Dead and The Gone is a companion book rather than a sequel to Life As We Knew It. The same events unfold in this book as in Life As We Knew It, but this time around the story centers on Alex Morales, a 17-year-old boy living in Manhattan with his large, Catholic, Puerto Rican family. As the disaster unfolds in the city, the horror is magnified by the lack of resources and lack of compassion in the metropolitan setting. Alex struggles to care for his two younger sisters, not knowing if their parents have survived, and must barter and “body shop” (stripping sellable goods off the dead) in order to bring home the precious cans of food he needs to keep his sisters fed. Throughout their ordeal, their faith and love sustain them, and Alex’s bravery is quite remarkable. This book does not dwell quite so much on the events involving the moon, so that a reader who hasn’t read Life As We Knew It might find the narrative a bit abrupt. However, reading it as a second book in a series, The Dead and The Gone was a moving story which left me eager for the third.

Book 3: This World We Live In

I was probably least moved by This World We Live In, in which the lives of the main characters from books one and two intersect. I found Miranda and Alex quite compelling on their own in the earlier books, but their mingled story in the third book felt overly contrived to me. In This World We Live In, Miranda’s father and his new family arrive on Miranda’s doorstep with Alex in tow, and the struggle for survival continues. New hope is found, lost, and found. The blended families have to deal with even more tragedy, and must set out in search of long-lasting solutions yet again. I suppose the author felt a need to wrap up the trilogy by bringing the storylines together, but this third book seemed a bit superfluous to me. Am I glad I read it? I suppose so — I’m a “completist”, so it would have irritated me to know there was a third book out there and not read it. Still, I was much more captivated by the stories in the first two books, and I could see reading them as stand-alone novels.

All in all, I think the author did a terrific job of conveying the terror of living through disaster, the overwhelming fear experienced by young people who must grow up too fast and shoulder adult responsibilities, and the helplessness of trying to hold a family together when the world has fallen apart. I recommend this series, either as individual novels or as a trilogy, and look forward to reading more by this author.

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