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Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick is part one in a trilogy of dystopian young adult books in which an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) wipes out all electronics, including pacemakers and other devices inside people’s bodies.  Alex is a 17-year-old girl with a brain tumor, who also has lost her parents in a horrific accident and has undergone numerous traditional radiation and experimental treatments.  She decides to leave her Aunt Hannah’s house near Northwestern University and head to the Waucamaw Wilderness of Michigan to determine what to do next — whether to go on fighting the tumor or move on.

While in the woods, she meets Ellie, her grandfather, and their dog Mina.  The 8-year-old Ellie is sarcastic and bit angry since her father’s passing in Iraq, but when the EMP hits, the only one left to rely on is a stranger and her dog, a dog that reminds her of all she’s lost.  Granted, she has a right to be angry and sad, but she whines just a bit too much and readers may find that they would be glad if Alex were to ditch her in the woods alone.

“The buzz on the plane faded and the quiet descended again like a bell jar over the forest.”  (Page 13)

Bick’s writing is suspenseful and clear, but the end of each chapter reads like a cliffhanger.  After 30 chapters, readers will be singing the equivalent of DUN DUN DUN.  Not every chapter ending needs to be this dramatic especially when there are no major plot twists revealed.  In addition to the EMP and the dramatic chapter endings, Bick introduces the Changed (aka the zombies/cannibals), those who survived the EMP, but turned primal and become cannibals.  This being a trilogy, there was no explanation of what changed these people into cannibals, nor why some kids, like Alex, Ellie, and Tom, do not change.

“She didn’t know if the tightness in her throat or the fullness in her heart meant that he was there; that they were connected somehow.  Maybe all that she saw and felt was the sensual fullness of memory:  that which abided and was nothing but the ghost of a touch, the whisper of a word, the lingering of a scent.”  (Page 374)

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick is an action packed novel that reads like horror with all the graphic details about the killings and eating, but what it lacks is a cohesive story.  In one half of the book, Alex seems like a strong young lady interested in taking charge, but in the latter half of the book, she becomes mush.  Once in Rule, she no longer physically tries to fight or escape her captors once they’ve set her up in a house and she begins work in the hospice, and of course, meets a kind boy her own age.  The novel becomes less about the EMP and the zombies than it is about the cult-like settlement of Rule in which surviving women are passed off like chattle and are only good for propagating the species.  In many ways, it is like the author could not decide what story to tell, and whether the character was to be strong and a main catalyst or merely a weak pawn in a larger chess board.  At more than 400 pages, readers may find that editing could have compacted the story more and maybe the plot could have been tied up a little better, with fewer loose ends — even for a trilogy this has too many.  However, if you are looking for something entertaining and fast-paced, this is for you.

About the Author:

Ilsa J. Bick is an award-winning, best-selling author of short stories, e-books and novels. She has written for several long-running science fiction series, most notably Star Trek, Battletech, and Mechwarrior:Dark Age. She’s taken both Grand and Second Prize in the Strange New Worlds anthology series (1999 and 2001, respectively), while her story, “The Quality of Wetness,” took Second Prize in the prestigious Writers of the Future contest in 2000. Her first Star Trek novel, Well of Souls, was a 2003 Barnes & Noble bestseller.

 

This is my 62nd book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

 

Book Club Thoughts (Beware of Spoilers):

This selection was from one of the male members in the group who reads a great deal of young adult dystopian fiction.

Most members enjoyed the book for what it was, a fast-paced thrilling dystopian novel, but two of us disliked it because the zombies were implausible and the main character was too weak by the end.  One member said that the portion of the book in Rule was “bungled.”  While I felt that Chris in Rule was a cardboard cutout of a “good guy,” one other member liked him more than Tom, the earlier love interest for Alex.  The youngest member of the group hopes that Tom is still alive in book two, Shadows, because as of now, his fate is unknown.

Most of us agreed that should the world end as we know it that a marshal law would be necessary to keep people civil to one another and that controlling information — even about super senses — is an essential part of that.  However, I disagreed that Alex would have become as complacent as she did and merely though about squirreling away supplies; I wanted more from her — maybe more recon or attempting to find out how the town of Rule operated and why.  The information that she does glean is told to her by some rather chatty members of the town, and she learns the information with little effort on her part or very little help from her super smell.

In the final cliffhanger of the book, Alex learns that the town of Rule has been feeding the teen cannibals, but she doesn’t know why.  One of our female members suggested that maybe the teen cannibals were once some of the town’s own children that became the Changed and the members could not bring themselves to kill their own kids.  Another member said that feeding the enemy is incredibly stupid and that the town should be cutting off the food supply; at this point the town is merely aiding in their own doom.  There also are quite a few loose ends in the book that some of us noticed, and it would have been nice if some of them were tied up by the end of book one so that new mysteries could be revealed and unraveled in book two.

Five of us, which is a majority, said they would read the second book to find out what happens, but three of us were not interested in reading book two at all for a variety of reasons.  However, looks as though we’ll all be reading Shadows as it was selected from the nominations by the member who selected Ashes.