Reynje's Reviews > Ashes

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick
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Everything was going so well..

...relatively speaking. Things were going as well as can be expected when a series of massive electromagnetic pulses has sent the world hurtling into a nuclear maelstrom. People have dropped dead on the spot. Birds have fallen from the sky. Deer have flung themselves off cliffs. And some people have turned completely, cannibalistically feral.

So when I say things were going well, I mean that Bick was spinning a very compelling story.

Seventeen year old Alex is hiking in the Waucamaw, with only her personal demons and her parent’s ashes for company, making a solo journey of deeply personal significance. A fellow hiker and his granddaughter happen upon Alex’s camp at the time of the “zap” (as she comes to refer to the inciting incident of the ensuing apocalypse). When the older man dies in the moment of inexplicable chaos, Alex is left with an eight-year old girl, no idea what has happened, and a whole world of horror to face.

Bick’s story is gripping from the get-go, forcing her characters into horrific situations and a desperate fight for survival. As it becomes clear that not all is well with some of those who have survived, there are some truly disturbing scenes of stomach-turning gore, pierced with a sense of visceral fear. The apparent reprieve in the form of young army veteran Tom’s appearance on the scene (I call this moment the “anti-meet-cute”, you’ll know why when you read it) is momentary. The three characters band together amid the madness, finding a period of brief respite, only to be confronted with yet more terror.

Ashes is refreshingly told in third person, and I don’t feel that hinders the reader's closeness to the main character. In fact, Alex as a character generally comes through loud and clear, particularly in the first half of the book, where her strength and intelligence really come to the fore. Her inner turmoil is well realised, making her a dimensional character who feels real and interesting.

I had advance warning that this book takes a rather large turn, and I will openly confess right now that I was cocky. "Do your worst, Ilsa J Bick", I thought – figuratively stretching and cracking my knuckles, "throw me some curveballs, I can take it." (Because I can be annoyingly smug like that, sometimes.)

The thing is, this book doesn’t really throw curveballs.

Instead, it walks up behind you, clubs you violently on the back of the head, then grabs you by the ankles and starts dragging you in a direction you really don’t want go, laughing maniacally all the while.

I don’t cuss that often, but please allow me to take this opportunity to say: WTF, Ashes. WTF.

While there is a chapter or two roughly halfway through that essentially act as a hinge between the two sections of the book, the transition is jarring enough to make Ashes feel like it is fragmented into two different novels.

On their own, these two sections work: the first as a story of white-knuckle survival and horror, the second as a claustrophobic story of entrapment, with sinister, almost cultish undertones. I actually really liked both parts of the novel, to be clear. It’s the butting of these two stories together that is hard to take – an alloy that does not entirely work.

The second half of the Ashes occasionally had me figuratively kicking and screaming and generally raging against the book. At one point, our main character muses “Where was the Alex who’d grabbed the ashes and run? The one who said to Barrett, I’m calling the shots now. She sure as hell didn’t know”. Well I sure as hell didn’t know either. Where was the Alex of the first part of the book? Logical and driven and smart? I missed her and I wanted her back. It was painful to watch her fade into a dim copy of herself, loose her grip on her determination (although in a way, it made sense that she would be lulled into this state by her circumstances, and the illusion of safety). I guess I just wanted her to fight so badly, that I struggled to calmly read on as she floundered.

The relationship between Tom and Alex had been developed so well in the first section – sure it was partly born out of fear and desperation – but it felt real and gradual and had my full investment. Then (view spoiler)

In spite of this, and to my chagrin, I couldn’t stay away. Ashes does tension well, and I think the inherent creepiness of the second half actually does stand up well against the action-packed first half, even if they don’t blend particularly smoothly. I still wanted to know how things would play out. Surely there had to be a good reason for all the torturous turns the book had taken. Surely all this angst was laying the groundwork for a truly epic finale.

Well, that depends on your definition of epic. If that would be: A cliffhanger so abrupt and shocking it feels like being flung out of a vehicle moving at high speed, then this your book. If not, then tough luck I’m afraid. Ashes isn’t going to be gentle with you. But that shouldn’t really come as a surprise, because for 465 pages, this book hasn’t made any pretence of tip-toeing around the reader’s feelings. It hasn’t pulled punches, it hasn’t censored the gore, it hasn’t spared the characters from grim choices and ever bleaker fates.

It’s fair to say that there are elements of this book that I found frustrating. After such a strong beginning, I can’t help but feel that the book falters in places with unwelcome plot devices, foolish choices, and turns of events that feel a bit forced.

However, I felt more compelled by this book than I have by some other recent mediocre post-apocalyptic offerings, and I found it hard to put down (view spoiler). The writing is tight and sets a swift pace, dropping in mini cliffhangers and steadily cranking up the tension. Ashes certainly had my attention by the throat, even when I was railing against it. And overall, there was still so much that I liked about this book and I think it’s a strong offering in its field.

So, I’m not just going to read the sequel.

I’m going to pick myself up, dust myself off, limp for a while, then hunt that book down. Because I’m a fighter, Ashes, and I will be back for Round Two.
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Reading Progress

September 20, 2011 – Shelved
November 14, 2011 – Started Reading
November 14, 2011 –
page 58
November 14, 2011 –
page 93
19.87% "So... I'm getting the feeling that this book is going to test out my "Gore Threshold". It's not really a "reading over lunch" type of book :{"
November 15, 2011 –
page 218
November 15, 2011 –
page 258
November 16, 2011 –
page 322
68.8% "And... cue creepy banjo music?"
November 16, 2011 –
page 362
77.35% "Oh no you didn't :-|"
November 17, 2011 – Finished Reading
November 18, 2011 – Shelved as: face-punch-endings
November 18, 2011 – Shelved as: read-2011
November 18, 2011 – Shelved as: unexpectedly-liked
November 18, 2011 – Shelved as: welcome-to-the-apocalypse
November 18, 2011 – Shelved as: young-adult

Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by Jo (new)

Jo Hahahaha, Rey this review is fantastic. I love your physical battles with books.
I imagine sitting next to you in the library is a bit of an interesting experience.

message 2: by Shirley (new)

Shirley Marr Oh I LOVE this. This review is FIERCE. I think your review is the only one I've read where someone actually mentions liking the second half. Heh heh, I look forward to you going after the sequel with a weapon :-)

Reynje Thanks Jo! Yes, it makes reading in public.. interesting :)

Reynje Shirley, for the most part, this book is FIERCE :)

I've noticed that too, and I understand why people are not enamoured. But I still think the second half was well written and interesting (if less fast paced). I had a problem putting the two together, and I wish some things hadn't turned out the way they did, but overall I still liked it a lot.

And thank you! I think I was feeling a little wound up and punchy when I wrote this :)

Aly (Fantasy4eva) Agreed! Awesome review. Sounds like a book I'd be pretty conflicted by, but on the other hand it seems pretty engrossing. Now I'm curious :D

message 6: by Wendy Darling (last edited Nov 18, 2011 09:44AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Wendy Darling Instead, it walks up behind you, clubs you violently on the back of the head, then grabs you by the ankles and starts dragging you in a direction you really don’t want go, laughing maniacally all the while.

I adore you, Reynje. (It's true, she does tension exceptionally well.) And I am staking a ringside seat to your next match with Ms. Bick.

Reynje Thanks Aly! Maybe knowing in advance that there was going to be a change in the story helped? I don't know.. but I still found it pretty engrossing, as you can probably tell :)

Haha, thank you Wendy! I tend to anthropomorphise the books I read a little..

Wendy Darling There's a Bick up on NetGalley right now, did you see it?

Reynje No, I didn't! I will scamper over and check that out... Thanks for the heads up :)

Wendy Darling You'll have to guinea pig it for us. :D

Arie ☂ Wonderful review! Agree with pretty much everything.

Reynje Arie ☂ wrote: "Wonderful review! Agree with pretty much everything."

Thanks Arie :) I'm excited about reading the sequel to this one.

Ceren that's exactly how I feel reading this, I liked the 2nd part as well buttt I hate how another love interest is introduced conveniently just when Tom is critically injured!

Reynje Yeah.. that didn't really work for me either. It's so abrupt! Looking forward to hearing what you think of this one..

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