4.5 Stars!Having just read Ashfall and Ashen Winter back to back, I can say without a doubt:1) The "realness" of this story has scared the "you-know-what" outta me but Alex and Darla are two of the BEST characters in YA. 2) A zombie apocalypse would be a lot easier to survive than THIS. (I think)3) #2 is merely a confidence boost for me because let's be honest, I'd be lucky to make it 48 hours before someone put me out of their misery. (Yes, you read that right.)Ashen Winter picks up six months after the events of Ashfall and you'd think author Mike Mullin would've have run out of ideas about how to make this apocalyptic world worse than it already was, but no. Not only do Alex and Darla have to deal with a lack of food and resources, but winter has set in for what feels like forever. (That right there would be enough to take me out because winter and I are not friends.) These really are some of the best characters YA has to offer and once again, I was immediately sucked into their story and their world. In fact, I'm pretty sure I held my breath the entire time I was reading. I was also treated to some pretty vivid nightmares, so thanks for that Mr. Mullin. ;)Alex is a character who shows strength, kindness, and a willingness to help others even when it comes at great personal cost to himself. With all that he's forced to deal with, it's easy to forget he's only 16 but many times he shows more maturity and grace than the adults in this story. (They could stand to learn a few lessons from him.) Darla is badas*! She's fierce, courageous and determined to survive despite the odds being stacked against her. She's like a superhero without a cape, although I've no doubt she could whip one up if she so desired. Her straightforwardness can seem harsh at times but walk a mile in her ice covered boots and your words might not be sugarcoated either.The relationship between Alex and Darla may not be ideal but it is a good example of sacrificial love and loyalty. Not a stereotypical teen romance with hearts and flowers, theirs is more bonding over how to butcher a rabbit and outwitting a military outfit that should be trying to help them. Even with their challenges, there is a sweetness to what they share that's heart-achingly romantic at times. Ashen Winter is a tough story to read because it could actually happen but I found the lawlessness (cannibalism, rape, murder) to be the scariest. A great deal of people have lost hope and are making choices based on fear, but there are some, like Alex, who recognize that moral responsibility doesn't change just because circumstances do. Mike Mullin has done an exceptional job presenting a broken world in all it's ugliness without being overly graphic or grotesque. He's also managed to show the positive side of humanity trapped in darkness that's both encouraging and hopeful and I'm excited to see where this journey takes Alex and Darla next.