Ashes, Ilsa Bick, Egmont USA, September 2011.
So I lied. This isn't the book I said I'd be reviewing next, but I recently finished this one & it's fresh in my mind & it's full of BLOOD & GUTS!
I was not expecting to enjoy Ashes. I love dystopian literature, but one has to be wary when there's so much of it hitting the market. All these one-name dystopian romance/thrillers are starting to run together, am I right? Matched, Crossed, Divergent, Uglies, Ashes, Delirium, etc. But this one was getting considerable buzz, & in the name of my job, I decided to read it. The synopsis didn't grab me: "An electromagnetic pulse flashes across the sky, destroying every electronic device, wiping out every computerized system, and killing billions" (Amazon).
I plodded through the first 50 pages or so, which follows Alex, a bitter teenage girl with a brain tumor, on a trek through the woods to fulfill a personal mission. She comes across Ellie, an 8-year-old girl, & Ellie's grandfather, & then BOOM! EMP! Grandfather drops dead. Not knowing what happened or the extent of the damage, Alex continues on her way. Soon, she has Ellie and young army vet Tom in tow, & the group finds itself just struggling to survive. The EMP has killed most adults. The very old & very young have survived, & teens are turning into the Changed.
I wasn't hooked until the moment Alex & Ellie come to a clearing in the woods. Amongst the trees, two teens crouch over a dead body, which they are dismembering & eating. & it's GROSS. Entrails & innards & blood & guts & the girl even pokes a finger into the dead person's eyeball & eats it like a lollipop.
Okay, Ms. Bick, you have my attention.
From then on it's like watching an awesome, gory zombie movie with slightly more depth, & I mean that as a sincere compliment. (Though to be fair they aren't really zombies in the traditional sense, more like people transformed into crazed cannibals.) Bick is brilliant with disturbing imagery. Before long I felt genuinely invested in this little band on their quest for survival, much like I rooted for Shaun & his buddies on their way to the Winchester, & Jim & co. as they moved through desolate England trying to avoid those infected with the Rage.
Like most contemporary zombie movies, Bick doesn't do anything particularly new or different. For the most part, the components of Ashes, from the restructuring of society in isolated factions to Alex taking out the Changed like a badass, already have been depicted on screen or paper. & like most contemporary YA novels, a love triangle arises & Alex finds herself torn between boy loyalties.
Does that make it any less fun? No. It's fun as hell. I devoured the book like the Changed devour their prey, gooey intestines & all.
My main criticism of the book is that it is rather overwritten. Bick's action scenes flow well, but her description is so wordy it can get exhausting. Metaphor really gets away from her. I noted the words "bloom," "squall," & "dazzle," which appear so many times in the novel I lost count. "Bloom" as in "the blood bloomed on his shirt," & "squall" like "the floorboard squalled under her foot." The light always "dazzles." You should never think while reading a novel, "Boy, I feel like I've seen this word a hundred times," especially when it's an unconventional word use like the verb "squall." Also, the ash theme is very heavy-handed. Ashes are everywhere; everything looks ashy. It could've been tamped down quite a lot & still been effective.
But that's the editor in me talking. & that's a complaint I bet won't register with 95% of the people who read this book. What's more, I predict that 95% will love the book wholeheartedly, because it's good, clean, gory fun. Not only will I pick up the sequel as soon as I am able, but I will likely reread "Ashes," in the same way that it's always fun to rewatch "Night of the Living Dead."
I hated Twilight. I enjoyed the Hunger Games & Uglies but haven't felt compelled to pick up the sequels. But something about Ashes puts it a few cuts above. It might be the gore, which I do so love. It might be that Alex is a strong, believable protagonist. Even when she reflects on her attraction to the guys in the book, it is always framed in the context of survival. In essence, she is a teenage girl - & all teenage girls get crushes - but she has more important things on her plate.
Verdict: Pick this one up when it hits bookstores in September! & in the meantime, check out Ilsa Bick's blog. Good stuff.
& just as an aside, my boyfriend sees all the books I bring home & dubs a lot of them derivative crap just by glancing at the cover. He's disliked most of the trendy YA he's read, but he picked this one up & blew through it in a few days just like I did. I'm tellin' you, it's addictive stuff.
Next up: The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill.