Author: Mike Mullin

Publication: 2011, Tanglewood

Pages: 476

Overall Rating:  bth_45_zps06f87659[1]                      

Rating for Action: bth_45_zps06f87659[1]

Quantity of Action: bth_3-star-rating_zps73bdba73[1]

Age Category: 13+

Brief Summary:  Alex is a normal kid, fighting with his mom and insisting he’s old enough to stay home on his own as the rest of his family takes off to spend the weekend with relatives across the border in Illinois.  But disaster strikes just a few short hours after they leave.  A super volcano in Yellowstone National Park erupts, sending a burning chunk of lava almost 1,000 miles to smash into the roof of Alex’s house.  He escapes, only to find himself in a whole new kind of hell.  The noise of the eruption is like a bomb going off – for hours on end – and when it finally stops, ash rains down from the sky, blocking out the sun and covering the earth in a layer of ash heavy enough to collapse roofs all across Iowa.

Alex scrounges a pair of skies and sets off with a backpack full of supplies to look for his family.  He soon finds himself lost in a wasteland of ash and freezing temperatures – a place where food and water are more precious than gold and vicious scavengers and thugs are always on the lookout for easy pickings.  The only thing standing between Alex and death are quick wits, a powerful will to survive, and his finely tuned taekwondo skills.  But even that might not be enough to see him through the cross country ski trip from hell.

Age of Main Character: 16

What I Liked the Most: Mullin has written a wonderfully realistic dystopian tale that’s set right in the here and now.  Alex’s journey is riveting in part because Mullin hasn’t pulled any punches.  Alex faces starvation, fights to the death, rape, utter loneliness, and a refugee camp so terrifyingly real it doesn’t even bare thinking about.

The realism even extends to what would and would not survive an ashfall of this magnitude.  Car engines are destroyed.  Corn and other crops are covered in ash.  Trees die.  Water is contaminated.  Other than scavenged canned goods, people find food by digging corn from under the ash and grinding it to make a simple dish of cornmeal and water.  They slaughter animals and either smoke the meat or simply let it freeze in the snow.  Absolute realism seems to be the hallmark of everything Mullin has written here.

Finally, Mullin does an excellent job getting inside Alex’s head.  The book crackles with fear and distress as he moves ever deeper into the heart of disaster.  And when he meets Darla – a girl who saves his life and ultimately becomes his travelling companion – Alex’s s budding feelings of love and affection fill the page.  However, readers should be warned that this is guy romance.  So while there are some beautifully rendered moments, it’s still romance from a guy’s perspective – which does make it somewhat different than the romance found in books featuring a female lead.

What I Liked the Least: These are minor comments, which is a sign of how much I liked the book.  That said there were a few things I had trouble with, and they mostly center around the first quarter of the book.

In the beginning, before the lava chunk hits and everything falls apart, I felt like Mullin was trying a little too hard to make Alex seem cool and uncaring – to create a good contrast for what Alex becomes as the story progresses.  I totally understand why Mullin does it – and maybe my reaction really stems from the fact that he succeeded in making this early Alex pretty unlikable.  But it felt like Alex was a bit too obnoxious and unpleasant – like Mullin was hitting all the stereotypes of the lazy, sullen, self-centered teen.

Shortly after the accident, when the explosions start, the book drags for a bit.  It goes on too long about the explosions and Alex getting through the first few days with the help of some neighbors.  I think Mullin could have cut down on this by getting rid of the second round of explosions and compressing the action into a day and a half instead of three days.

The same thing happens just after Alex leaves his home town of Cedar Falls.  There are thirty or so pages of him travelling through the ash, stopping to rest and finding places to eat, sleep, and look for water, broken only by a night spent with a kind farm family.  By page twenty I was starting to wonder if this was what the whole book was going to be like.  But then Alex runs into his first real enemy and everything changes.

The point I’m trying to make here is that there are places in the early part of the book where Mullin seems to be trying too hard or where the action drags.   BUT DON’T LET YOURSELF BE FOOLED INTO GIVING UP.  Keep going.  Because once Alex meets Target, you’ve a great book on your hands.

How Good was the Action?  Excellent.  Mullin does a fantastic job balancing blow-by-blow action in his fights and escapes with Alex’s emotional reactions to what he’s doing and experiencing.  It makes the action quite powerful.  When Alex gets into a fight, I can feel the adrenaline and fear coursing through his body as easily as the smack of his hand against someone’s neck.

Mullin has a black belt in taekwondo, as does Alex, and he uses his real world knowledge of the art to inform his action scenes.  When Alex uses his bo staff or executes a kick, punch, or hand chop Mullin tells us exactly what he’s doing, in just enough detail to make it absolutely real without going overboard and making it like some kind of lecture.

How Engaging was the Story? Let’s just say that I ignored my family a little more than I probably should have while reading this book.  The characters are great, their relationships are real and powerful, and as I read I was able to see Alex growing and maturing.  Mullin also does an excellent job balancing out action scenes with relationship building and the simple act of slogging across a hundred miles of snow and ash on skies.  The relationship and real-life scenes were great and, with a few exceptions early on in the book, were broken up with action at just the right moments to keep the story bustling along.

Overall Assessment: Ashfall is a riveting edition to the dystopian genre – and in a field with so many stand-out books that’s saying something.  It’s a raw and powerful experience – all the more so because it takes place today – it’s something that could happen at any time (even though at the end Mullin goes to great pains to reassure us that such an eruption is highly unlikely during our lifetimes).  And the post-ashfall world Mullin has created is so stark and realistic it’s hard not to believe that it’s real.

Profanity: A tiny bit.

Sex: Yes.  Alex and Darla kiss, make out, and eventually go all the way.  Though, other than kissing, Mullin doesn’t describe anything.  He only alludes to it.  And when Alex and Darla do eventually have sex, they use a hard-to-come-by condom.

There’s also a rape scene, though again the rape is only alluded too – just enough for us to know what has happened.

Violence: Yes, and some of it is quite graphic.  Alex is cut across the side with a hatchet and he puts a staff through someone’s eye.  People are shot in the head and die in other very real ways.  There’s even a brief description of cannibalism.

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