Teaser: "Yeah...no." My sorrow dissolved in a wave of pure fury. What kind of place was this, where tens of thousands of people were herded together without adequate shelter, without decent latrines? A cattle pen, not fit for humans. And the the guards, Captain Jameson, they were people just like me. For the first time ever, I felt ashamed of my species. The volcano had taken our homes, our food, our automobiles, and our airplanes, but it hadn't taken our humanity. No, we'd given that up on our own.
My Thoughts: Mike Mullin, as you can see from the teaser above, pulls no punches. This is a dystopian novel and he really makes you feel it. At the beginning of the book, Alex lives a quiet life - he lives in a house in a small town in Iowa with his parents and sister, he attends public school, and enjoys computer games. The most exciting thing he does is take taekwondo classes. He's taken them for years and enjoys them, and at not quite sixteen he's earned a black belt. Then a volcano in Yellowstone Park blows and everything changes (BTW, the volcano is real, click here for more info).
When the book starts, Alex is home alone. His parents and sister are away for the weekend, visiting his uncle Paul and his family in Illinois. Alex fought with his mother about going and was successful in his quest to stay home. That decision proves fateful. Alex is in his bedroom when there's an earthquake type rumble and the power goes out. That event is immediately followed by a cracking noise, the house falling, and his bedroom catching on fire. He manages to escape and takes refuge with some neighbors after his house burns down. He stays with them for several days and they learn that the supervolcano at Yellowstone blew and the affects are being felt all the way to the west coast in California and Oregon (click for a US map if you need a refresher or are unfamiliar with US geography).
For several days, the falling ash blocks the sun and the world is in near total darkness. The ash falls continually for about a week then falls more erratically after that. It's a rare day that goes by without ashfall. The fall has dumped from six inches to two feet, depending on location, topography, etc.The result is that crops have been buried, many killed off, the water supply in many areas is contaminated, power is out, phones are out, and there's little to no communication with the outside world.
After a violent incident at the neighbor's house, Alex decides to find his family. He returns to the remains of his house, scrounges up supplies, and sets off to Illinois to find his family. Thus begins his trek. It's challenging, physically, mentally, and emotionally. The roads are covered, cars are buried in ash, many houses and buildings were destroyed in the eruption and people are terrified. Alex encounters people whose first reaction is to pull a shotgun and people who willingly share their home, water, and food. He also encounters people who, understandably, are inclined not to share but to hoard what they have for themselves. Alex himself discovers how far he is willing to go to save his supplies in an encounter with a little girl at shelter. Later, he redeems himself in a heartwrenching encounter with a mother and her young children. His companion, Darla, is more pragmatic and thinks his compassion will be the death of them.
I rummaged through our pack. "What are you doing?" Darla whispered. "Making some dinner." "Alex, we should move on. Find another camp for tonight. We've helped them enough." ....."They don't have any food or water bottles. Who knows how long it's been since they've eaten." "And who knows how long 'til we'll eat again if you give away all our food." "I won't give it all away." "Where are we going to get more when we run out?" "I don't know.".....If all we did was what we should to survive, how were we any better than Target? I took out three water bottles and the frying pan....."She's right, you know. You don't owe us anything. You should keep your supplies."....."We might die because of all the stuff my stupid, softhearted boyfriend is leaving you. So don't you die, too.You take this stuff, and you keep yourself and your kids alive. You hear?" "I hear."
Darla is not without compassion but she's eminently practical and a bit of a Darwinist. Alex is practical, resourceful and compassionate. He's willing to give people a chance but he's also capable and willing to defend both himself and what's his. Those taekwondo lessons he took come in very handy throughout the book.
I loved this book and I don't love dystopian stories. I do like some forms of sci fi and I think this clearly falls in that category. Mullin did his research and it shows but at no time are we subjected to info dumps or long expository scenes that don't really quite fit into what's going on. He weaves it in so that we learn it as Alex learns it. The story is told in first person narrative and it works very well. We see through Alex's eyes and are in his head as he deals with surviving and finding his family. It happens to us, just as it happens to Alex. You feel like you're there.
Alex and Darla, a girl he meets on his trek who becomes his traveling companion, are very believable, and likable, teenagers. The adults are not all evil or nincompoops or incompetent but complex and detailed. We meet a wide range of characters and get a realistic look at how people react in a catastrophe. Mullin writes plainly and clearly, it's not fancy but it is very, very effective and he has a real knack for imagery.
I remember a lot of those arguments. That Friday they only fueled my rage. Now they're little jewels of memory I hoard, hard and sharp under my skin. Now I'd sell my right arm to a cannibal to argue with Mom again,
Long tendrils of flame licked into the attic above my sister's collapsed bedroom, cat tongues washing the rafters and underside of the roof decking with fire.
But unlike thunder, this didn't stop. It went on and on, machine-gun style, as if Zeus had loaded his bolts into an M60 with an inexhaustible ammo crate.
"Ashfall" is powerful, emotional, thrilling, and it hooks you from the opening line. This book is pretty close to perfect - the pacing, the action, the characterization, the story line, the language, almost everything. The only thing I question is the depiction of the government and the military, it's pretty stereotypical. I'm curious to see what happens in the next book and how events play out about it, not just with the government and the military, but everything. If you like a strong, emotional story that will keep you reading until 3AM (I was so tired the next day but it was so worth it), go buy "Ashfall".
I received an eARC from NetGalley.show more