Warning: this does contain spoilers. But they won’t, really.
Unfortunately, while Ashes was an interesting book–it did manage the triptych of the apocalypse (wilderness survival, cross-country travel-survival, and dealing-with-deviants survival)–it was troubled by plotting, narrative jumps and character consistency. I’d call it a three-star read–good enough to survive a little longer, but it could go either way next season. Call it the ‘Carol’ character of The Walking Dead. Might get more interesting, but just as likely to get killed.
Our protagonist is a young woman, Alex, who is headed into the wilderness for emotional closure, planning to scatter her parents’ ashes in the remote woods they loved. With an actively growing brain tumor, aka ‘monster,’ she’s been under the watchful eye of her aunt, and has had to sneak away to accomplish her goal. Recently, she’s had experimental radioactive/ chemoactive seeds implanted in her brain to treat the tumor, but she’s finally decided that was her last treatment. Hiking the trails, she meets an older man, Jack; his young granddaughter, Ellie; and her war-trained dog, Mina. They share a cup of coffee, but before Alex can continue on her way, all of them are suddenly struck down in agony. Strangely, all the animal life in the area seems to be effected as well.
Having an ill teen as heroine was a fascinating choice, particularly one wrestling with the issues of terminal illness. Alex’s perceptions and reactions are highly colored by the experience of cancer survivor. She has huge memory gaps, although her survival skills remain, leading to one of the logic complaints other readers fix on. However, neurology is incredibly complicated, let alone neurology filtered through a 17 year-old’s perception, so I was willing to accept the premise. It’s definitely interesting and one of the reasons I kept reading was Alex. It seems likely that the seeds in her head had something to do with her unusual reaction to the world events, but we don’t know for sure, and though Alex spends some time thinking about it, most of her attention is focused on reacting to events. Undoubtedly one of the reasons I kept reading was a desire to have more of Bick’s picture colored in.
One of the strengths of the book was world building. I felt Bick captured the sense of what it’s like to be in the midwest woods, far from civilization. I felt like I was hiking with her, conjuring pine smell from my own memory, and feeling the chill in the fall air. However, Bick failed on the intrinsic Midwest friendliness coupled with the natural comradarie of people in the wilderness. She is deeply suspicious encountering Jack’s group. To his gentlest of inquires, she was hostile and couldn’t wait to get away. It struck me as odd that someone like Alex–used to meeting a wide variety of people in medical facilities, used to hiking remotely–was so impolite and guarded about general details. I wondered if there was deeper anger issues that would be clarified later, but they never were. It was the first hint of oddness to come.
Contrast that suspicion with her meeting up with Tom not long after the pulse–she isn’t freaked out that he stitched her head, removed her wet clothes or that they immediately settled into a family unit. Had it been my 17 year-old self, I would have reacted oppositely–trusting a grandpa, 8 year-old and their dog, and suspicious of a 24 year-old guy, no matter how good he smells. Her initial wariness was dropped, most likely to make for an interesting potential love interest, although she resumes it later in the book.
One thing you can say about Ashes is that the plot moves. However, it seems overly troubled by plot contrivances instead of organic happenings out of character or event development; I first started to wonder at author intention when in short order Alex lost a coffee press, a stove, a map, a water bottle, a backpack, parka, food and then finally, her father’s gun. Really short order–like about two days. It started to feel like plot points designed to up the tension rather than realistic losses or consequences of bad behavior/decisions.
This contrivance really started to bother me in the section that results in leaving the ranger station. Not long after meeting Tom, the bomb disposal expert, the survivors end up at a well-provisioned rangers’ cabin and have a chance to recuperate. After hanging out for three weeks at the cabin, suddenly our orphans (isn’t that convenient?) decide to go on a road trip. Tom decides Alex needs to know how to hunt if something happens to him, so they take two days to have bow hunting practice (if only it was so easy!), learn to change a tire and drive stick shift. Weak. Which led me to one of my first serious logic confusion–why would they leave when they’ve acknowledged the world is likely in disarray? Well, for the plot. Still, would’ve been nice to have a good reason. Tom says, ‘medical supplies.’ Not that any of them are sick, but in case. And–hear him out–they’ll go even father north, to someplace even less populated and figure out how to live off the land. Um. If they were going to live off the land, wouldn’t they be in a fairly isolated place already? And how would being isolated get them medical access? And why trade known resources (that include a generator!) for unknown? It didn’t make sense. You give me a swanked up cabin with a generator, fireplace, guns, ingredients for chocolate chips cookies (really!), a dog and a lake for fish and I’ll chill all winter. Heck, I’ll move in for good. I get it, we needed to move the plot along. I’d rather settle for the old fashioned “I want to find my family” over this lack of reasoning.
Assorted other oddities: The narrative format doesn’t quite work, trying to force tension instead of naturally letting a story about zombies develop it. There is half-assed foreshadowing at many chapter ends and all the book sections that is overly portentous. As an example: “That was the last good time” and “I never saw her again.” Especially disconcerting are weird narrative jumps. For instance, one chapter midway through [has Ellie, Tom and Alex confronting a group of armed adults; the next leaps forward three days and is missing a character, leading me to re-read to see if I had missed what happened.
There’s a few canned-ham scenes, most notably when (spoiler) Alex and Tom part: “I need to tell you–” “No…don’t. It doesn’t matter now…” “But it does matter. I need you to know…” “I’m listening.” “I won’t… can’t tell you everything now… But I want you to know… I found it. I found my fate.”
That sound you just heard? It was me snorting water.
The last section of the book was the least interesting for me, as Alex learns to survive–if not thrive–(spoiler) in a town called ‘Rule’ (subtle, Bick isn’t). Personally, I hate the “isolated-creepy-cult” plot, so this was a significant detraction for me. There, the cardinal author sins of the love triangle and the cliffhanger ending are committed.
Ultimately, the book sucked me in but left me somewhat unsatisfied. I confess the developing plot point of Alex’ special relationship with canines was a big fat lure I wanted to chase down, and likely kept me interested in her but alas! I remain disappointed. Reviews for the second have me wondering whether it’s worth picking up due to narrative disjointedness.
Three triplicate stars.
If you want a great zombie read, I’d recommend heading over to visit Benny in Rot & Ruin for some well-written zombie survival action.