Egmont, 2011, 465 pages
It could happen tomorrow....
An electromagnetic pulse flashes across the sky, destroying every electronic device, wiping out every computerized system, and killing billions. Alex hiked into the woods to say good-bye to her dead parents and her personal demons. Now desperate to find out what happened after the pulse crushes her to the ground, Alex meets up with Tom, a young soldier, and Ellie, a girl whose grandfather was killed by the EMP. For this improvised family and the others who are spared, it's now a question of who can be trusted and who is no longer human.
Author Ilsa J. Bick crafts a terrifying and thrilling novel about a world that could be ours at any moment, where those left standing must learn what it means not just to survive, but to live amidst the devastation.
Alexandra is 17, and dying of a brain tumor. Hiking alone in the Waucoma mountains while contemplating her father's pistol, she has just come across bratty nine-year-old Ellie and Ellie's grandfather when a massive electromagnetic pulse hits. Grandpa dies immediately thanks to a pacemaker, leaving Alex unwillingly responsible for keeping herself and a very difficult little girl alive.
The "Big Zap," as Alex calls it, kills adults, turns teenagers into cannibalistic zombies, and leaves only children and old people alive and mentally intact (with a few exceptions, like Alex). Those old people turn mean quick, shooting anyone without wrinkles.
Zombies, used in a proper context, have always been metaphors for something, and in Ashes they seem to be metaphors for the fear the elderly have of young people. All those old people afraid that kids today just want them to die so they take their stuff see their fears become literally true.
Did Ilsa Bick actually intend her readers to plumb her post-apocalyptic zombie novel for metaphors? I don't know. I'd like to think she at least thought about zombies-as-metaphors, though, because it would support my perception of this book as being much more intelligent than, say, The Farm, though not as intelligent as Raising Stony Mayhall, and it does not have the edge or narrative power of Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy.
Alex is a smart, capable teenager with enough skills to survive on her own and think (and when necessary, fight) her way out of difficult situations. Unfortunately, as is typical in YA novels, her thinking skills and competency seem to fade into the background whenever there's a guy around.
She meets Tom, a soldier on leave from Afghanistan, only a few years older than her, and she and Tom and Ellie proceed to make their way north.
The first half of the book is a pretty harrowing survival story. Besides the Changed and mean old people with guns, there are also wild dog packs and other dangers. Ellie is about as useful as a sack of hair and spends most of the trip whining, throwing tantrums, and then tearfully apologizing. The reader begins to wish the zombies or the wild dogs would eat her, but in fairness, she's exactly as annoying and useless as a real nine-year-old would be in that situation.
Far more annoying is the die-stamped safely sexless YA romance between Alex and Tom.
And yet, I'd actually kind of grown fond of Tom and Ellie and so was a little sad when they disappeared for the second half of the book. Especially since the second half becomes, instead of a zombie survival trek, more of a dystopian horror novel set in a disturbingly orderly town named Rule. Here the story begins to resemble a darker version of World Made By Hand. Alex finds the people of Rule hospitable and mostly friendly, and yet she soon learns that she's effectively a prisoner, and the town (of course) has secrets. While I found this part of the book less interesting (especially when another boy, Chris, starts making with the wooing so now we've got, sigh, the inevitable YA love triangle), it was psychologically effective. Because Rule really is a pretty decent place to live, considering the alternatives, and even once Alex discovers she's a captive, and the terms, it's still hard to argue on a pragmatic level that she should jump on a horse and try to ride out into the zombie-infested wilderness. She begins to feel this reluctant complacency herself, so of course it takes a few more reveals and then a very dark secret at the end to get her butt moving.
Ashes is not a great book, but in the overpopulated sub-genre of zombie apocalypses, it's a pretty good read, and even the YA parts only provoked a minimum of eye-rolling from me. Ilsa Bick has added a few creative twists to her zombies, such as how different brains (differentiated not just by age, but conditions like Alex's tumor) are affected by the massive EMPs that wiped out civilization. The EMPs themselves are never explained in detail, beyond the implication that there was a nuclear exchange that probably finished off industrial civilization all over the world. And I liked the character of Alex and could tolerate her mandatory Two Hot Boys and annoying Girl Sidekick.
Have you read Ashes?
Verdict: On the one hand, it's just another YA zombie book. On the other, it's not bad. While Ashes does not win any awards in my estimation for originality or spectacular writing, it's above average, and I actually liked the characters and the story pulled me along, so I'll give it the highest praise I can: I am sufficiently interested to read the next book in the series.
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