The disturbing thing about Mike Mullin's new post-apocalyptic young adult novel, Ashfall, is how real (and possible) it feels. Ashfall features a near-term apocalypse based on a natural disaster, the eruption of the enormous volcano beneath Yellowstone National Park. Ashfall is told from the first-person perspective of 15-year-old Alex, who strikes out from his destroyed home in Cedar Falls, Iowa to find his family in Warren, Illinois, 140 brutal miles away. Ashfall begins:
"I was home alone on that Friday evening. Those who survived know exactly which Friday I mean. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing, in the same way my parents remembered 9/11, but more so. Together we lost the old world, slipping from that cocoon of mechanized comfort into the hellish land we inhabit now. The pre-Friday world of school, cell phones, and refrigerators dissolved into this post-Friday world of ash, darkness, and hunger." (Page 1)
What fan of post-apocalyptic fiction could resist continuing? The post-eruption world traversed by Alex is bleak and ash-filled, with a shortage of food, and an abundance of dangerous people. I found Ashfall reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (though not quite so hopeless as that). I also found echoes of Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It. Like LAWKI, Ashfall made me wonder whether I shouldn't go ahead and stockpile a few supplies in my garage, just in case.
The world in Ashfall is vividly, chillingly rendered, albeit from the ever-so-slightly melodramatic viewpoint of a previously sheltered teen. Here's a snippet:
"I might have been skiing on the surface of the moon for all the activity there was. I passed four or five farmhouses but saw nothing moving. Everything I normally saw in Iowa countryside was missing: There were no people, no cars, no cows--not even a solitary turkey vulture circling in the sky.
The weird, rainless thunder and lightning continued. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness, so every time a series of lightning bolts lit up the landscape, it hurt. The thunder seemed strangely muted. Maybe the falling ash muffled it somehow, or maybe my ears hadn't fully recovered from the first enormous explosions." (Chapter 12)
Also like LAWKI, in addition to being a survival story, Ashfall is a coming of age story. Alex grows through the course of the book from a sullen teenager with a "bratty little sister" and a World of Warcraft addiction into a man who takes responsibility for himself and others. The transformation is incremental and realistic, given the series of epic trials that Alex passes through in a short time.
On thing that I found particularly interesting about Ashfall is that it's a localized apocalypse. All of civilization doesn't come to an end (as in most books). It's just that the characters in the book are unable to reach the presumed civilization that still exists on the East Coast. Many people still revert immediately to their worst selves, ranging from the shotgun peeping out of the window to scare off passers-by to the men who commit atrocities, just because they can. Ashfall is not for the faint of heart.
Ashfall is compelling and suspenseful. Mullin makes excellent use of cliffhangers at the end of paragraphs, to keep pulling the reader forward. Moments of calm are brief, and liable to be punctuated at any moment by peril. Like this:
"Darren rested his hand on my shoulder. "It'll be all right, Alex. The phones will probably be back up tomorrow, and we'll get your folks and the insurance company on the line. A year from now, the house will be good as new, and you'll be cracking jokes about this."
I nodded wearily and straightened up, Darren's hand still a comfortable weight on my shoulder.
Then the explosions started." (end of Chapter 2)
I did feel towards the later part of the book like a bit more editing could have been employed, to make the book leaner. But this didn't keep me from moving forward, and it certainly won't keep me from reading the sequel, Ashen Winter, when available.
Ashfall is a straight-up post-apocalyptic story that feels like it could happen tomorrow. There are no zombies or invading aliens, and no heavy-handed environmental messages. There's a gigantic volcano that explodes and wreaks havoc across the Western half of the United States (at least), followed by a classic survival story of a teen on his own in harsh and unforgiving landscape. Ashfall is a must-read for fans of this type of realistic post-apocalypse novel and anyone who enjoys survival stories. Recommended!
Publisher: Tanglewood Press
Publication Date: September 27, 2011
Source of Book: Purchased as Kindle eBook
© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).