I don't read many young adult books, but I do read everything by Andrea K Höst, so this was a must for me. It's the author's first venture into post-apocalypse fantasy, and it begins, literally, after the apocalypse - the very instant after, as main character Madeleine finds herself amidst rubble from a disintegrated underground station. Rubble and dust, in fact, vast amounts of dust which coat everything, including Madeleine herself. And as she makes her escape through the ruined station, she encounters the base of the Spire, a black spike, which has instantaneously risen into the Sydney skyline, along with numerous others all around the world.
The early chapters of the book show a world divided in two - those who, like our heroine, have been exposed to the strange dust and begin to develop patches of colour on their bodies and unusual powers, and those who have not yet been contaminated. People know by instinct that the dust is something to avoid. One of the iconic moments of the book for me is the vivid image of Madeleine emerging from the train tunnel and climbing onto the platform of the next station down to escape, coated from head to foot in the mysterious dust, while passengers on a stopped train, staying safely enclosed beyond reach of the dust, peer through the windows at her in horrified pity.
As with all books of this type, survival is the first priority, and this part of the book is fairly conventional. Madeleine meets other survivors of the contamination, they begin to organise themselves, and use their ingenuity to avoid being hunted down. Naturally, there are constant threats and near-misses, but the gang is smart, and finds some pretty imaginative ways to hide and to provision themselves. Some of this is predictable and some is very ingenious, but although the plot burbles along quite nicely, it all felt slightly ho-hum. I think this is probably because it's YA, and quite an extreme YA book at that. All the main characters were teenagers, without a single older person (bar one in his twenties, later on), and the hide and survive plot made it seem almost like an Enid Blyton adventure - the Famous Five, only with romantic angst and a bit of sex thrown in. Although the characters were all interesting enough in their way, the uniformity of age made it a little flat for me.
But then, just past the two thirds point, there's a moment which changes everything, one of those magical OMG moments when your perception simply shifts sideways to open up the story in innumerable different ways. I love it when an author manages to do that to me. The ending is less magical and more prosaic, but still an enjoyable page-turner, and the epilogue - well, I'm never keen on epilogues, but that's just me. I can see the need for it here, however.
I was worried at one point that this was going to be a disappointment to me, but in the end the strong opening and that wonderful twist saved the day, and left me mulling over all the implications. I never fully engaged with the characters or the romantic entanglements early on, but eventually there was a great deal of depth to the story, and some of the issues raised buzzed round in my head for days. I liked, too, that the characters weren't the standard issue beautiful people who leaped into perfectly honed action when called upon. These were relatively ordinary people with odd combinations of talent and weakness. Problems were solved by intelligence, common sense and teamwork, rather than brute force. Nor was everyone uniformly heterosexual. An interesting and thought-provoking, if slightly uneven, effort. Four stars.