First published in Great Britain: 29th September 2011
'No, she thought. No, please, God, I'm not seeing this'
Seventeen-year-old Alex is hiking through the wilderness when it happens: an earth-shattering electromagnetic pulse that destroys almost everything.
Survivors are divided between those who have developed a superhuman sense and those who have acquired a taste for human flesh. These flesh-hunters stalk the land: hungry, ruthless and increasingly clever...
Alex meets Tom, a young army veteran, and Ellie, a lost girl. They will fight together and be torn apart, but Alex must face the most difficult question of all:
In such a vastly changed world, who can you trust?
A story of high-wire tension, gut-wrenching twist, and burgeoning love, Ashes will leave you breathless.
The first book in a post-apocalyptic trilogy, Ashes wreaked havoc on my delicate sensibilities. Ilsa J. Bick's depiction of what happens when an electronic magnetic bomb detonates in North America, is graphically gross. Most of the population gush fountains of blood from their orifices and drop dead on the spot, some survive, and some become crazed cannibals, picking off what's left of the human race. Boy, does Bick's writing really make all that flesh and organ-eating come alive for the reader: Every squelch, every pop, every crunch. Lovers of guts and gore, step right up; this is the book you've been waiting for. Me? Being the wimp that I am, I was cringing. During some moments in Ashes - when dogs are ripped apart limb from limb to be feasted on, a human eye is popped into a mouth like a grape and a bite wound festers with pus and maggots - I wondered how Bick had managed to gain such intimate access to my worst nightmares.
Also not for the faint-hearted, are the non-stop action and the cliffhangers in the first half of the book. Our heroine, Alex, is one of the few survivors; alone in the woods but for 8 year-old, Ellie, and Tom, a soldier. Alex is exactly the person you want around when the apocalypse hits. She's an orphan, with an incurable brain tumour, so she already has experience in dealing with things that would make most of us curl into the fetal position and sob. She's strong and capable and never whines (that would be Ellie's job). She's a lifelong camper who knows a lot about basic survival and she and Tom, with his army background, make a great team. However, in Ashes, the characters can't catch a freaking break at all and at any given moment, they're either being attacked by cannibals, or wild dogs, or shot at, or robbed of all their food and weapons. The action never lets up, so as the reader you'd better get comfortable having your heart in your mouth. The chapters are super-short, too, keeping you reading just one more to find out what happens and then oh! Something else happens and you have to read the next chapter and then the next. Bick is also fond of ending the chapters with very ominous-sounding lines like "That was the last good time" or "They never saw each other again". This is an author who has perfected the art of making a book impossible to put down.
The second half of the novel is a big switch from this, though. Alex loses Tom and Ellie and ends up in Rule, a town where a group of survivors have set up their own community and government. Everything in this part of Ashes is different from the first - the pace slows down, the characters we've gotten used to have gone and even Alex seems different. Alex's growing relationship with Tom was so well-done and the two were so well-matched, that it feels really out-of-character how quickly Alex starts to have feelings for a new boy. The stuff in Rule is also less absorbing because it's pretty obvious that Rule will have a secret sinister side and Alex will have to leave, whereas in the first half of Ashes, I couldn't have guessed what would happen. Rule does let us see how other people who are not Alex, Tom and Ellie have been handling the crisis and gives lots of hints about what could be going on in the wider world, but it's left unresolved in this book. I'm hoping Rule turns out to be a vital part of the bigger picture, to justify Alex spending so much time there.
Ashes ends on a huge, gruesome cliffhanger but this didn't bother me as it was a nice return to the style of its first half and the second book, Shadows, is out next week, so I don't have a long wait to find out what happens. (If I had read this in 2011, though and known I was in for a wait a year long? I might have thrown it against the wall.) I have two big demands: Shadows has to give me the same thrill ride as Ashes did in its first half and it has to start answering some of the questions Ashes put out there. If it doesn't, I'm gonna be frustrated and mad but if it does, I will happily proclaim this one of the best post-apocalyptic/dystopian YA series around.
Rating: 4 stars