I’m going to preface this review by making a somewhat controversial statement: I don’t really like zombies very much. For whatever reason the wide world is obsessed with the undead and has been for years, but to be honest zombie apocalypse scenarios are usually too stressful for me to actually enjoy them. I know for a fact that I would kill myself next to immediately if the dead started rising from the grave, so watching and/or reading about people struggling to survive when I know that, in their shoes, I’d rather just die and get it over with is pretty unbearable. That said, I am totally hooked on The Walking Dead, so go figure. Anyways, when Ilsa Bick’s Ashes was listed in Voice of Youth Advocates’ list of “Perfect Tens of 2011,” I decided to swallow my general dislike of zombies and give it a go.
In Ashes, seventeen-year-old Alexandra has cut school to go hiking in Michigan’s Waucamaw Wilderness when a massive electromagnetic pulse lights up the sky, making blood geyser out of everyone’s mouths and driving animals into a frenzy. Alex happens to be chatting with a young girl named Ellie and her grandfather on the trail when disaster strikes; after the crushing pain subsides, Alex realizes that gramps has dropped dead in his tracks, leaving her responsible for the grief-stricken little girl. But wait, there’s more! Alex, who had lost her sense of smell in her battle against brain cancer (affectionately referred to as “the monster” throughout the novel), realizes that something about the EMP making her nervous system go bonkers made her regain her sense of smell and then some. Her animalistic ability to detect the layered nuances of emotions that make up a living thing’s scent is what alerts her to the zombie element of the story, for while the EMP left her alive with some sort of crazy olfactory super-powers, it left the majority of the young survivors totally brain fried, pushing them into a cannibalistic, monstrous feeding frenzy. As Alex and Ellie traipse through the cannibal teenager infested woods towards the hope of safety, they meet Tom, a young man stranded in the forest after his companions are transformed and/or killed by the EMP. The three form a pseudo-family as they struggle to survive in a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic world in which most of the surviving youngsters have been transformed into something less than human and the remaining adults have devolved into a state of desperate, murderous paranoia.
I’ll start with the positive here. Ashes is a page-turner, no doubt about it. Things tend to go from bad to worse, and Bick almost always ends chapters with serious cliff-hangers, making the 400+ pages whiz by. That said, some of the cliff-hangers are a bit misleading and gimmicky, but this is supposed to be the positive aspect of the review so that’s all I’ll say about that. I really liked that Bick’s apparent knowledge about hiking, survival, and background in psychology come through in her writing; all the backcountry trekking scenes made me really want to pack up my gear and head into the mountains. The fact that she clearly knows what she’s talking about in terms of brain chemistry made the burgeoning explanation for how and why different people were transformed by the EMP believable. The pacing is spot-on, and there is enough excitement and gore to keep fans of the genre hooked. Her world-building is accomplished; something about the idea of forging through a snow-blanketed forest nightmare with bloodthirsty cannibals liable to pop up at any moment makes for a grim and haunting vision of the end of the world.
The neutral: this book is gross. I mean really, really gross, which is to be expected in a book that deals with zombie-like creatures, but I’m just putting it out there. If you can’t handle reading about some guy prying a dog’s jaws apart, ripping its tongue out, then crushing it to death before chowing down, just walk away. I think it says something about how I feel about animals vs. people in general that I didn’t really have a problem reading about a teenage girl eating an old woman’s eyes like grapes, but the dog part was almost enough for me to put the book down. As an aside, I am going to start a shit list with writers who introduce dogs just to kill them and ruin my life forever. Patrick Ness is on the top of that list right now, but I have my eye on you, Bick.
Now for the bad-ish. The characters, while definitely pretty badass with enough secrets and developments to make them interesting, were fairly flat. The gradual revelations about their pasts were intriguing, but after four hundred pages I still felt like I didn’t really know any of them beyond their own personal traumas. This weak characterization made the romance feel predictable and stilted. As soon as Tom was introduced as a character I knew that he was going to be a love interest, which is fine – it’s not like I’m anti-romance or anything, and I think that, given their situation, a romance between the two characters is fairly natural. Alex is instantly and consciously attracted to Tom, and if she seems strangely bewildered by how their playing-house courtship unfolds, I guess that can be attributed to her age and relative inexperience with boys. That said, Tom’s declaration of “At last, something to live for” after they finally smooch is cringe-inducing; that kind of melodrama seems totally out of place for this action-packed gore-fest. Don’t even get me started about the love triangle with Chris. It’s unnecessary, and since you barely even get any time with the two of them together her intense feelings for him read as totally bogus.
Finally, the ending. UGH. While I like cliff hangers which make you absolutely insane for the next installment of a series, Bick leaves way too much up in the air at the end of Ashes. You still have no idea what’s going on with two of the main characters even though they vanished about halfway through the book; add the big reveal about the sinister nature of Rule and it’s just too much. Bick doesn’t quite give enough answers, so that the ending feels abrupt and the narrative far too unresolved.
Overall, this is a fun read that will make your heart thump and your stomach heave, but I don’t know that it deserves all the hype. That said, I would feel absolutely comfortable recommending this to teens, male or female, who dig a fast-paced horrific read with lots of blood and adrenaline without sacrificing smarts. There are plenty of good questions posed about what happens to the human in people when the whole world falls apart, and when the survival of one outweighs the good of the group.
And, just because this is my book blog and I do what I want, here is my musical accompaniment to Ilsa Bick’s Ashes:
Where I got it: The library