Ilsa J. Bick
YA / Post-Apocalyptic / Zombies / AWESOME
The last line of this book left me flailing and cursing like a sailor. Most people would think this was a sign of a bad book, but in fact, it is quite the opposite. It means this is a really awesome book that is the beginning of a trilogy and NO ONE TOLD ME IT WAS A TRILOGY. I was expecting a nice ending – okay, maybe not nice considering the subject matter, but at least an ending and then it takes another twist and things get creepier yet again and the last lines leave me screaming curse words in an empty house. Thankfully Fernando was not yet home and therefore did not get to see my madness.
The basic plot, at least in the beginning, follows a girl, Alex, as she goes on an epic camping trip to scatter her parents’ ashes across Lake Superior. Since her parents died two years earlier, she has been unsuccessfully fighting an epic brain tumor that has stolen her sense of smell and most of her memories. During this camping trip, a massive EMP gets set off and the entire world falls apart. And now there are zombies. And Alex has not only regained her sense of smell, but now has super smell. Think of it as an early warning detection system for the previously mentioned zombies and a way to know what people are really feeling.
Bick manages to develop characters very quickly, despite often giving them a bank vault of secrets that they aren’t sharing. Alex, defeated by her prognosis and the amount of experimental treatments she’s gone through, is ready to die and yet she’s still an incredibly strong, smart and competent protagonist. Yes, she gets into scraps, but it’s not usually her fault. I wish the other YA books I’ve been reading lately had female protagonists even just half as awesome as Alex.
Of course there are two boys. Thankfully neither one is an asshat nor is a saint who can do no wrong. They come across as actual, potentially real-life boys complete with flaws and talents, fears and compassion while also remaining two distinctively different characters. I developed a fondness for them both, and worried for their well-being whenever they weren’t on the page. I cannot remember the last time I liked both boys in a YA title.
The writing is descriptive without going overboard. There is rarely a dull moment, which is saying something when over a hundred pages of it involve tramping through a vast forest with a whiney 8-year-old. About two-thirds of the way, the book takes a giant shift from action adventure zombie horror story to something more like a sinisterly creepy mystery story, and somehow Bick manages not only to make it work, but to keep the steady pacing and maintain the horror of the entire thing, just hidden a little more beneath the surface, the entire time.
On a side note, I really like what Bick did with the ashes theme. Not only is it in reference to the ashes of Alex’s parents that she carries around, but also the ash in the sky that leaves the moon a haunting color of green and the ashes of the world that no longer exists. I could go all English major and start talking about how the mention of removing cold ashes on a camp fire to reignite the flames was also a metaphor for learning how to live a life in a changing world, but I’ve been out of college for a few years and nobody wants to hear that.
This is going to be an incredibly difficult book to finish reviewing without spoilers. I will try to keep them to a bare minimum, but if you are anti-spoilers of any kind, I would suggest not reading any further and just going to buy the book. Spoiler Alert for this Review: I’m giving it an A. Go. Now. Read it. It came out two days ago.
The biggest spoiler I have to give to move forward is that the EMP strike kills almost every adult and turns almost all teenagers into flesh-eating monsters (technically not zombies because they don’t die, but close enough). People who had alterations to their brain – Alex with her tumor, Tom with his PTSD – children who haven’t hit puberty and old people are the only ones that survived.
Alex spends the beginning of her adventure with Ellie, the previously mention petulant child, after Ellie’s grandfather dies during the EMP attack. They are soon joined by Tom, a military man on leave, who’s just a kid himself. These guys make a wonderful pseudo-family group together, watching out for each other. Together they survive for quite some time until one by one, Alex loses her family yet again. It’s heartbreaking and once taken from her, Ellie and Tom haunt the rest of the book in the background. Once the character of Chris is introduced – the previously mentioned second guy – I felt Alex’s conflict between staying with this new guy she cared for and seeking out the family unit she lost on the way to him.
This leads her to the town of Rule, which you know isn’t going to be right because the name of the town is Rule. From the beginning it reminded me of the creepy church town seduced by the Whore of Babylon in Supernatural crossed with Haven. (Side note: I watch too much television) It’s run by a council consisting of members of the five founding families and headed by a religious zealot. When Alex starts wondering if she’s walked into a cult, she’s not far off. The town is creepy. They keep the teenagers and children, referring to them as the “Spared”. They screen refugees to see if any are useful and send those who aren’t back out into the wild new world. Almost all of the old people despise all the teenagers because they’ve come across so many that had turned zombie. Too many people, including the woman hosting Alex and three other “Spared” girls, quote the bible way too much and rarely make any sense when they do, at least as far as you know at that point in the story. And everyone is hiding something.
Even though it reads as though it’s a completely different book, it still works. There are no longer any zombies; instead they are replaced by a bunch of supposedly sane people who are really, really creepy. Everyone speaks in what seems like a strange code that can’t be cracked and no one wants to answer questions. Alex has no idea what’s going on and she doesn’t have the option to leave, until suddenly she does… and it’s not like she expects. It’s so well developed and Alex is such a strong character (both characteristically and developmentally) that she alone is able to hold the two somewhat incongruent pieces of this story together into one coherent whole. That takes some talent and Ilsa J. Bick has it in buckets.
For a book I thought was going to be about zombies, the zombies aren’t in it that much, but they’re a constant threat just out of the corner of your eye. The tension holds together and I had to force myself to go to bed way past my bed time numerous times. The pages fly by, so it never feels like it’s nearly 500 pages. I highly recommend Ashes. It’s been quite some time since I’ve been left stunned by a book and the last two lines of this story hit me like a brick between the eyes. Perhaps in a couple of weeks, I’ll reflect back and find something wrong with it, but I seriously doubt it. Not even the time gaps between different sections of the book threw me. This book is all around wonderful.
Fully developed genuine characters that you quickly grow to care about; great plotting with a new take on zombies and post-apocalyptic scenarios; creepy creepy creepy; unexpected turns all over the place; just remember it’s the first in a trilogy
A copy of Ashes was provided to me by the publisher via Netgalley for a honest review.