Review: Ashfall by Mike Mullin

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Title: Ashfall
Author: Mike Mullin
Genre: young-adult, post-apocalyptic
Series: Ashfall #1
Pages: 472 (Nook NetGalley ARC edition)
Published: September 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5/5

This is a novel that crept up on me. It exceeded my expectations - a rather hard thing to do with a book about a SUPERVOLCANO (get ready, I love volcanoes so any time it is mentioned it will be in all caps) - and I also enjoyed it more than I had anticipated from the first chapter. This is the story of Alex, a 15 almost 16 year old typical teenage boy. The generation after "the 9/11 generation" Alex's life takes place in the somewhat-but-not-too distant future in America. The first person perspective was an interesting experience for me in this novel for one reason: I don't read a lot of male teen perspective in YA. Other genres, sure but in the past I've had issues connecting and caring for younger, angrier male main characters. Happily, no such issue with Ashfall. Mullin weaves a believable young man in Alex: one a 24 year old female has little to no problem caring about and rooting for throughout the duration. It was a refreshing choice and nice change of view for me personally. I knew Alex was kid after my own heart when he said of shelving his history and sci-fi books alongside each other: "I just thought of it as past and future history." A sentiment I found totally appropriate from a kid in a nearly-impossible apocalyptic future. He's a nicely normal, regularly immature and self-centered 15 year old boy that grows into a more-than-capable young man. The voice is easy, readable, though it might occasionally come across older than the aimed-for 15.

In Alex's world, everything stopped on a Friday. The "pre-Friday life of school, cell phones and refrigerators dissolved into this post-Friday world of ash, darkness and hunger." With a SUPERVOLCANO (duh duhhh duhhhhhh) 900 miles away in Yellowstone, whose explosion and noise could he heard all the way to Alex's home of Cedar Falls, Iowa Mullin had my attention from the start. I'm a sucker for survival stories and adventure and boy did he deliver with the surprisingly realistic Ashfall. On Alex's 100+ mile trek to find his family in another state, there is adventure, human cannibals, bad ass older gay men, awesome hot older bald chicks, and more. Mullin certainly doesn't waste anytime launching the reader right into his story and it's a wild ride from start to end. Mullin does a credible job of keeping the tension and emotions high: even the hours of darkness and unending ashfall are tense and riveting rather than boring or pedantic. This is a pretty straight-forward advenure/survival tale: Mullin doesn't add many elements from other genres. Though be warned: it can be pretty decently gory and unexpectedly violent. Beware the human cannibals and rabbit skinning scenes - they're pretty well-done but very unsettling.

The world didn't stop when it ended as everyone knew it. On his travels Alex happens upon a wide variety of human nature. No character is completely good, completely evil or even safe from a (usually gory, abrupt) death. From brutes who loot, to rapists and murderers to evangelical Christians on the verge of mass suicide, Mullin doesn't hide the darker side of human nature: the ones who use disaster and pain to gain something, like doomsday prophets preaching more fear. Alex says upon realizing the bad outlook: "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." Happily the author doesn't stint on the good side of people either: it's a well-balanced depiction of what life in America could be life if this SUPERVOLCANO actually existed. The differing types of encounters Alex has serve more than adequately keep his day-to-day trek interesting if still necessarily and understandably repetitive. One issue I did have: Alex mentions "precusor" eruptions/vibrations MONTHS before the actual eruption... but no one did anything? A catastrophe so enveloping half the United States in "red zone" with no assistance and the government knew... and did nothing? It struck me as an oddly glaring detail for such a seemingly well-thought-out and researched novel.  One of the elements of the novel I also enjoyed was the lack of info Alex had on his situation. Sporadic and unreliable information is hard to come by in this darkened world, leaving Alex devoid of info and entirely in charge of all his decisions - just as he wanted "pre-Friday" to his chagrin.

The wide range of characters also worked in Ashfall's favor. From the bad ass older gay men to the hard-nosed and honestly a bit too perfectly brainy Darla, each was different and dynamic. Darla, the older woman in Alex's young life at 18, sees Alex at his weakest and as an unnecessary risk, but helps him repeatedly if begrudgingly. She's by far the most intelligent/resourceful character in the novel, but maybe a bit too much to be entirely real. I'm all for the girl being the best, but I find it hard to believe an 18 year old handbuilt a well-pump, an innovated bathroom/toilet arrangement, or a bicycle powered corn grinder all by herself - when no other character in the novel is shown to be half as proficient - even Darla's parents! Where did she learn this, Autobody High School for MacGyvering Your Way to Life in the Apocalypse When Everyone Around You Dies? That deux ex machina lost some points for previously high authenticity factor. I did like that Darla and Alex worked well together, with an easy but sexually-charged tension between them. Working in tandem works better for both than independent efforts alone - an overaching theme for the entire novel. More is accomplished with cooperation than coercion, a point subtly made and proven with Darla and Alex. Their slight romance is sweet and mostly off-sceen: no distraction from the main story of survival and family.

If I enjoyed this so much, why only a 3.5 out of 5? Well, besides the issues with the precautions and Darla's hidden identity as Inspector Gadget/MacGyver the pacing suffers occasionally. Not on Alex's trek: once he reaches a government camp my attention and interest began to wane. The novel truly succeeds with Alex, out in the ash - not hemmed in and cooped up. I also found the final confrontation with a major antagonist to be rather flat and bland - not at all what I had been led up to believe would happen. Note as well the final conclusion - it failed to be stirring emotionally and felt more like an obvious ploy to ensure continued reading in the sequel, Ashen Winter. I fully intended to read the next volume, but I felt cheated by the abrupt and unfulfilling end to the first after the extensive buildup of 450+ pages. Mullin is a more than decent storyteller with a hell of a story to get out, but pacing issues and deux ex machinae (?) plague the middle to last quarter of the tale. 

What I Was Absolutely Sold On:
  • the disaster of the SUPERVOLCANO itself - Mullin does a fantastic job of selling it, realistically, scientifically
  • Alex himself - immature, capable, determined and a great refreshing change of perspective
  • Darla - minus caveats from above. She is the second-most developed character: naturally evolving into a kinder, more vulnerable but no less capable/badass girl
  • the experiences Alex has on the road to Darla/his family

What Lost Me:
  • Darla's super abilities
  • plot holes: government warned and did nothing, east of Mississippi okay but no relief to breadbasket of America?
  • Camp Galena - terrible pacing, lost the flow of the earlier chapters

All in all an ingenious, imperfect but completely fun survival story hampered by a few issues. Mullin doesn't stint on the details, even creating diseases ("silicosis") and such from the ash to contend with more mundane issues of food, shelter and family. His SUPERVOLCANO is a great hook and a great idea for a post-apocalyptic duology - I hope the sequel improves upon this already impressive first effort.

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