The pain was fire, a laser that scorched her brain. A sudden metallic chattering bubbled in her ears, and her vision sheeted first red and then glare-white, and then she was stumbling, her feet tangling, and she fell. Something wet and hot spurted from her throat and dribbled down her chin.
(from Ashes, page 26)
Ashes is the first installment in Ilsa J. Bick’s YA dystopian trilogy about a world turned upside down by an electromagnetic pulse that renders all electronic devices useless, causes countless people to drop dead on the spot, and changes many others in unthinkable ways. The novel follows a teenage girl named Alex, who is camping in the mountains, grieving the death of her parents, and contemplating her terminal brain tumor when the EMP kills the old man she has just met in the woods, leaving her to watch over his 8-year-old granddaughter, Ellie, who is already dealing with the grief of losing her dad in Iraq.
Shortly after what she calls The Zap, as she’s trying to figure out what supplies she has, what she should do next, and how to manage Ellie and her bad attitude, Alex realizes that she suddenly has regained her sense of smell, and it’s even sharper than before. She can smell fear and the emotions of both people and animals. It’s not long before she smells a rotten stench, and she and Ellie stumble upon teenagers who have suddenly gone primitive. Somehow they also were changed by The Zap, but into cannibals, wild beings focused only on eating whatever they can get their hands on.
While dodging these zombie-like cannibals and a pack of frenzied dogs, they run into Tom, a soldier not much older than Alex, and as they try to find food and shelter and piece together what is going on in the world beyond the forest, they become a family of sorts. They can’t stay in the woods forever, but there are more sinister things waiting for them on the road, as catastrophes such as this bring out the worst in some people.
I probably wouldn’t have picked up Ashes if it wasn’t our August book club pick, but it was a quick read that had a little bit of everything — disaster, romance, and of course, action and horror, courtesy of the cannibals. The Girl (age 12) and I read this together, and she really enjoyed it, gore and all. (I should probably state that this book may not be appropriate for your younger reader. There is some sex talk but nothing too graphic, a few swears, and the cannibal gore, so it just depends on what your child can handle.) As one of my friends in the book club stated, it’s not great literature, but you can enjoy it for what it is, and considering some of the deep war novels I gravitate toward, this was a bit of light, mindless reading for me.
However, The Girl and I both grew tired of the overuse of the words “ash,” “ashes,” “ashen,” etc., and how Bick ends scenes too soon, picking up a little later in the story and making us wonder what happened during some critical moments. We both would have preferred more details about the EMP, but all we got were the speculations and observations of various characters, though we understand (and hope) that Bick probably is saving the crucial details for the last two books.
We liked the first half of the book, when it was truly a survival story, but it seemed to fall apart toward the end, when Alex comes across the village of Rule, its cult-like Council of Five, and its creepy plan for the Saved, and she seems to lose some of the toughness that made her character so interesting early on. She suspects all is not as it seems in this town, but she is placed in a home with other young girls not affected by The Zap and falls into a routine that involves working at a hospice. We also questioned why books with teenage heroines seem to need a love triangle, as a shadowy Chris, who is torn between the rules of Rule and what he thinks is right, shows an interest in Alex.
Still, there was a lot to like about Ashes. Bick does a good job developing her characters and getting readers to care about whether they survive. The premise of the book is unique, and she paints a realistic portrait of human nature in times of distress. The abandoned cars and dead bodies, the chaos and violence that erupt as people become desperate for food and a place to sleep that’s safe from the cannibal kids may be the result of an unbelievable situation, but I certainly could see people reacting in such a way. It was hard to tell who they should fear more — the Changed who want to eat them or the humans who only care about themselves.
The cliffhanger ending made us definitely want to read the second book, so it’s a good thing Shadows is slated for release next month. There were so many loose ends left dangling, and while we don’t need everything tied up neatly, we just want some answers and some resolution when it comes to certain characters.
Disclosure: I borrowed Ashes from the public library.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.