Kelley Armstrong’s Aftermath takes us into the dark world of school shootings, shattered friendships and redemption. It’s an emotional tale that will keep you thinking about it long after you put the book down.
There was nothing ordinary about that day; it had been both the most glorious and most horrific of her young life. The wonderful, incredible afternoon when her friend Jesse (Jassar) Mandal moved their relationship from friends to first date was utterly destroyed by what happened next. Because what followed was the nightmare of Skye Gilchrist learning her brother had been part of a three-man team that shot up their local high school. Luka, her brother, had been killed by the police and Jesse’s brother had been killed by the school shooters. What followed was three years of living with her grandmother while working out a penance in the public eye for something she had taken no part in. What followed was hard. But nowhere near as hard as what is coming. Because just as Skye thinks her time of penance was ending, her grandmother has another stroke. The state deems her an unfit guardian and Skye is forced to live with her Aunt Mae in the town she fled. The place where her brother’s legacy is the only thing that defines her.
Jesse went from golden boy to troubled teen in the blink of an eye. Not only did his older brother die in a school shooting, his best friend’s brother was one of the shooters. Skye took off with no goodbye, leaving him alone with his grief. He isn’t happy to have her back after those betrayals but as he watches her tormented by people who weren’t even affected by the events of that afternoon, he can’t help but try and defend her. Granted, his defense looks an awful lot like stalking since he lurks in the shadows of wherever she is, hidden inside his hoodie. But still, he’s trying. Looks like he’ll have to try harder, though. Someone wants Skye gone and they are going to great lengths to make sure she gets the message.
This book is a difficult read. Not only is it about a painful subject, the novel itself is peopled by folks in lots and lots of pain. For example, Jesse is confused and hurting. His older brother had been a star athlete, good looking and popular and a total ass. He mercilessly picked on Jesse and now Jesse is figuring out how to mourn someone whom he kind of wanted gone to begin with. Not dead, but for sure not anywhere near him. He also has to wonder how much of the blame for their bad relationship lies with him. Did he not try hard enough to win his brother’s love? Had it been inevitable that they would clash or had Jesse done something to set that off? They had only been kids when the shooting occurred. Would age have given them a more mature fraternal relationship?
Skye is not only a young woman who experiences endless persecution wherever she goes, she, too, is trying to work out the best way to deal with the death of someone she loved. She was close to Luka but society tells her he was a psycho, a sociopath unworthy of her sorrow. Her mother has gone into a deep depression, unable to care for herself, much less Skye. Her grandmother is sick. Skye has no support system.
Into all that heartache comes the loss of what Skye and Jesse had. Given their unique situations – a young man acting out his emotions through bad behavior and a girl despised for someone else’s actions – they have had no opportunity to find replacement friends. That afternoon cost them not just siblings but their best friend – and the hope for something more.
All that is enough to get the heart aching but there’s more. The school shooting itself is a terribly painful subject. Not just because of the deaths of innocent children but because the shooting here is not just a tragedy but a mystery. Shortly after Skye arrives at the school, the persecution she undergoes forces her to confront what she believes. Prior to these events she had no interest in researching Luka’s death but after she is threatened and abused by her fellow students, she and Jesse start to realize that the castigation she is undergoing seems designed to keep her from finding something she was never seeking. Not only are the people responsible for that maltreatment feeding her clues they don’t realize they are giving her, another party seems determined to offer anonymous intel as well. Skye and Jesse are in a position where checking into these tips and seeing who is behind it all seems the safest option. Wading through a school shooting to get to the heart of a mystery was painful, though. I also felt that the shooters/shooting was handled with a bit too much of a superficial brush for us to really understand all the components of it. The subject needs a longer, stronger look than it receives here.
The author makes an effort to create an inclusive story; Aunt Mae is a lesbian, Jesse a Bengali-American Muslim whose mother chooses to wear a hijab. However, those are also areas that I felt needed more exploration because those descriptors appear in the text simply as labels. They provide no real context for those characters, which kept them from actually being meaningful to the story.
On a more positive note, the author does an incredible job of communicating the pain of her main characters to the reader. That wasn’t much fun to read but I give her full credit for having the skill to bring those emotions off the page and into the reader’s heart. Armstrong is a consummate professional and her prose is strong, her plotting tight and the characterization of her two leads is solid. Had it not been for the lack of depth awarded to the shooters, whom the author made important to the tale via the mystery, I would probably have given this book an A.
I also liked the romance. The first kiss between Jesse and Skye is lovely, the way their relationship is described is delightful and I adored how they brought out the very best in each other. I tend not to like teen romances that have characters finding their one and only at a young age but these two overcame my prejudice and had me rooting for them almost from the start.
Aftermath is a pain-filled book dealing with a painful subject. As far as a recommendation, I think fans of the author will still find a lot to love here. I don’t think this is a good place to start reading her, however. Bitten or her YA series that starts with The Gathering are better places to begin.
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