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Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

September 19, 2011

Alex has run away and is hiking through the wilderness with her dead parents’ ashes, about to say goodbye to the life she no longer wants to live. But then the world suddenly changes. An electromagnetic pulse sweeps through the sky zapping every electronic device and killing the vast majority of adults. For those spared, it’s a question of who can be trusted and who has changed… 

Everyone still alive has turned – some for the better (those who acquired a superhuman sense) while others for the worse (those who acquired a taste for human flesh). Desperate to find out what happened and to avoid the zombies that are on the hunt, Alex meets up with Tom – an Army veteran who escaped one war only to find something worse at home – and Ellie, a young girl whose grandfather was killed by the electromagnetic pulse.

This improvised family will have to use every ounce of courage they have just to find food, shelter, while fighting off the ‘Changed’ and those desperate to stay alive. 

Ashes is one of those books that has quickly generated a huge buzz all over the internet, from blog to blog. I know you shouldn’t always get sucked in by the hype, but sadly I am one of those people who does and I’m not afraid to admit it! I received a proof copy of this quite some time ago now, and if I remember rightly I didn’t pay that much attention to it, thinking ‘hmph…zombies’. Although I love supernatural fiction, zombies have never held much interest with me. However, the blogosphere has been right once again. Ilsa J. Bick has successfully terrified me and made me question why I never thought to give zombies a chance before!

What I love most about this novel are the little surprising additions to both characters and story that you wouldn’t normally find in the YA genre. For instance, the protagonist, Alex, is a young girl hiking through the wilderness alone, with her parent’s ashes ready to give up on her dismal life, a life that is soon to be inevitably shortened by the tumour growing inside her brain. It’s certainly a bleak start to the novel, but one that holds a lot of promise and originality for the YA genre. Alex obviously hasn’t had an easy life, but the trauma that she has been through has served to make her stronger, giving us a strong female lead that every reader will love.

At the minute the electromagnetic pulse sweeps through the sky, Alex finds herself alone with eight-year-old Ellie and her grandfather who hasn’t survived the pulse. This pulse has extremely dire consequences which they will learn as their journey unfolds. Electrical devices no longer work, kids are turning into flesh-eating monsters, and those with severe illnesses are suddenly better, leaving some with enhanced senses. Alex suddenly has a super sense of smell that can detect the ‘Changed’ before she can see them, which as you can guess, comes in handy a lot! This is a world where the elderly and a select few young people are the only real survivors.

Unable to leave Ellie, despite her stubbornness and bratty tendencies, the two must stick together and try to make their way to the ranger’s station to find out what’s happened. These circumstances certainly give their relationship an interesting dynamic, and one which sadly I wasn’t all that fond of. Alex is young, but still much older than Ellie, leaving her feeling responsible for her life. I found Ellie extremely irritating for the first 100-150 pages and as a result I didn’t find myself overly enjoying the novel during this time. It’s only when Army veteran Tom comes into the picture that I really started to get into it.

Tom has been left alone in the wilderness, just like Alex, after his friends either died from the pulse or became one of the ‘Changed’. Tom clearly holds many secrets surrounding his reasons for being in the wilderness, and that are several hints of him being a deserter of the Army. Sadly, I think we will have to wait until the next book to really discover his past! Tom changes the dynamic of the group once again, and makes the three of them feel almost like a family, each one playing a role that someone comes rather naturally to them. It also took a lot of the focus from Ellie and by this point we get a sense of Ellie’s acceptance of what is actually going on, and through this acceptance she is forced to mature somewhat, making her a little less annoying and much more likable!

I don’t want to give too much away, but what I will say is that eventually the small town of Rule becomes the focus of the story, and here everyone lives by a set of rules that are not to be disobeyed. The actions of these townspeople are extremely surprising, but also extremely interesting in the way that it makes you question if this would really happen. It certainly seems very plausible, and that for me, is almost the scariest thing of all about this novel. Their old lives are no longer viable, they must adapt to this new world where electricity no longer functions, where food is in short supply, and where the ‘Changed’ are prowling the forest at night. With only the older generation and a select few young people surviving, the question of reproduction is certainly an issue, and one which is very much at the forefront of everyone’s minds in the town of Rule.

I thought Bick really explored the consequences of the electromagnetic pulse and the inevitable changes to our world very well. At times, I often felt like I was reading an adult novel due to the depth of the novel and the way certain themes were explored. It’s Bick’s writing that really makes this novel original to others of its kind in the YA genre. It feels as though Bick has really sat down and thought about how this would affect our world and the changes in society and towns, and how the human race will strive to survive. It really is a very intelligent novel and one that raises many relevant questions.

I said earlier in the review that I didn’t much enjoy the first 150 pages, and I think after looking back on it, I realise that it’s because I was expecting something entirely different to what it turned out to be. The inclusion of characters like Tom, and the town of Rule definitely took the novel to a whole new level for me, and I’m glad I didn’t give up on it! However, my one final gripe of the novel, and it’s certainly not a big one, is that I never want to see the words ‘fanny pack’ ever again!! Maybe it’s because I’m British but I just *hate* it. Any other Brits have a problem with this or is it just me being immature? I’d love to know!

If I could liken this novel to anything else I’d probably say it’s like Justin Cronin’s The Passage, but for the younger generation. There are some really violent and gory parts in this novel however, so be warned if you’re slightly squeamish! It will keep you reading til the wee hours of the morning, and once you get to the end you will probably re-read the last page one more time just to make it last that little bit longer (I know I did, especially with the cliff-hanger it leaves you dangling from!) I really cannot wait for the next book in the trilogy. Read it now. You won’t regret it! And if you’ve got this far then thank you for reading my essay of a review!!

Ashes is officially out on the 29th September (though I have seen it in shops already), published by Quercus. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy to review!


7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2011 02:41

    I hate it when books end on a big cliffhanger, it’s just irritating, especially if you have to wait a long time before the next book comes out (see George RR Martin as the all time worst example). As it is, this sounds interesting and I’ll throw it on to my list of books to check out eventually. It’s always good when the author really looks at the world around their cool idea and really examines how the world will change.

    • September 20, 2011 11:26

      I know exactly what you mean! However, I didn’t find this cliffhanger irritating…I thought it was a brilliant way to end it. I’m sure you’ll see what I mean if you do read it 😉 It’s definitely worth a read. A very intelligent YA novel. Let me know your thoughts if you do give it a go! 🙂 I still haven’t got around to the George R R Martin books! I have the first one on my bookcase but it’s so big I just don’t have time for it yet! 😦

  2. January 9, 2014 20:22

    The ending was realy painful and so shocking becouse i didn’t expect anything bad might happen to Alex but i realy enjoyed reading it and i wish to know what happened to Ellie and Tom and did Alex died or what?


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