Book Review: The Shade of the Moon by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Book Review: The Shade of the Moon by Susan Beth Pfeffer

The Shade of the Moon (The Last Survivors, #4)

The Shade of the Moon is a continuation of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Last Survivors series, which began with Life As We Knew It, The Dead and the Gone, and This World We Live In.

In the first three books in the series, the Evans family is the primary focus as they live through a horrific global disaster. When an asteroid strikes the moon and knocks it closer to Earth, “life as we knew it” comes to an end, as the changed gravitational forces lead to tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions — which in turn lead to an ash layer blocking the sun and causing world-wide winter. Agriculture fails, civilization begins to fall apart, and day-to-day survival is constantly a struggle.

The Shade of the Moon picks up four years after the original asteroid strike, and three years after the end of the original trilogy of books. The first three books revolved around teen daughter Miranda; in The Shade of the Moon, Miranda is a background character as the focus is now on her younger brother Jon. Jon was always the baby of the family, but as the story opens, he is now 17 years old, living in an enclave of the privileged — people deemed so important to the future of mankind that they live in guarded communities with access to food, clean air, nice homes, and health care. The not-so-fortunate live outside the enclave but work as laborers — although the “clavers” refer to the laborer population as “grubs”, which gives you a pretty good idea of the esteem in which they hold them.

Jon is a “claver” because he is a “slip” — through a connection, he was able to get a pass to live in the enclave, even though he doesn’t come from an important family or have the status of true clavers. Because he’s a slip, he has to constantly be on guard not to mess up, not to go against the grain. Protesting the treatment of grubs, especially as a slip, is a sure way to get himself, and probably his loved ones too, thrown out of the enclave and sent to the mines, or worse.

My question as I began reading The Shade of the Moon was: When did my disaster book turn into a dystopian novel?? This was not exactly what I’d expected, and not really what I was looking for. What I found so compelling in the first three books was the story of a family’s struggle for survival. It was quite a human story, with parents sacrificing for their children, children forced to grow up too quickly, people coming together in adversity and wondering whether a future would exist for any of them.

In The Shade of the Moon, life has moved on, but the survivors now live in a caste-based society in which human life has little or no value, at least if the humans in question are grubs. Claver boys are encouraged to go raise hell in the grubber town — and it’s clear that their version of fun involves random beatings, arson, and even rape. Clavers debate whether the grubs should have a clinic in their town — why waste resources on them? The grubs may have had lives of note before (Jon’s housekeeper is a former professor of philosophy), but that doesn’t matter. Clavers have domestics to manage their households, and domestics can be beaten, starved, and mistreated in myriad ways, so long as their productivity isn’t compromised.

In reading the Last Survivors books, I accepted the premise even if I wasn’t sure whether the science of the global disaster was at all realistic. In The Shade of the Moon, it’s not the science, but the sociology, that has me puzzled. I’ve certainly read plenty of books set in dystopian societies; that’s not the problem. The issue for me in The Shade of the Moon is how quickly this new dystopia has become the norm. It’s only been four years since the initial disaster, and less than that since the enclaves were set up and developed. Frankly, that just doesn’t seem like enough time for such a dramatic change in beliefs and attitudes to have become so strongly internalized by the people in this world. The members of the enclave don’t just enforce the caste system as a means of self-preservation — they truly believe that “grubs” are less, are not fully human, and are not worthy of adequate food or even a decent burial. Ultimately, I didn’t buy it, and my inability to suspend my disbelief was a constant distraction from the story itself.

That said, The Shade of the Moon is fast-paced, and once I got past the early chapters, it was compelling enough to make me keep going and to want to know how it would all turn out. Author Susan Beth Pfeffer doesn’t pull any punches, and she certainly isn’t kind to the characters we come to care about. The members of the extended Evans family are all wonderful and rich characters, but that doesn’t protect them from the very bad things that come their way in this book. I understand that young adult fiction needs a teen lead character, but Jon is less interesting to me than the rest of his family — and after spending the previous books with Miranda, I missed her throughout The Shade of the Moon, in which she’s older and therefore only relevant to the story as she relates to Jon and his struggles. The Shade of the Moon is also yet another YA book that features an “insta-love” relationship, and I just didn’t buy that either.

If you’ve read the first three books, should you read The Shade of the Moon? Mixed feelings on this question. This new book isn’t so much a continuation of the previous story as a new direction entirely. You’re not necessarily missing out if you don’t continue — but if dystopian settings appeal to you, then you might want to give The Shade of the Moon a try.

In fact, The Shade of the Moon may even work (possibly better) as a stand-alone. Once you understand the backstory, it can be read as a novel of a dystopian world, and while the family connections may not be as clear or powerful, the plot itself works along the lines of all the other “dystopians” in the market — a cruel, divided society with harsh rules, a courageous young person or two willing to risk their own safety in order to make a stand, and hey, even a love story!

It was unclear to me at the end whether there will be more books in the series, although I suspect that there will be. I suppose I’d like to know what happens to the characters and whether their lives improve, but I’m not sure that I’d feel all that compelled to continue. I’d recommend The Shade of the Moon for those who particularly enjoy the dystopian society genre — but if “dystopians” aren’t your thing, I’d say this one is not a must-read.


The details:

Title: The Shade of the Moon
Author: Susan Beth Pfeffer
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication date: August 13, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Edelweiss, in exchange for my honest review.

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.