Flee! the zombie apocalypse is here! Ilsa J. Bick’s Ashes


Gotta love a well plotted zombie apocalypse novel…and overall, this is it.

As the story begins, our heroine Alex is heading north into Michigan with the intention of hiking through one of the state parks there1 to sort out what she wants to do with the rest of her own life, and scatter her parents’ ashes in the wilderness they loved when alive. Her aunt, with whom she’s been living after her parents’ death, is concerned; not only is it late September—a time of year which can bring unpleasant weather in northern Michigan—but Alex has an incurable brain tumor. The fact that Alex has taken her father’s gun only serves to convince Hannah that Alex is planning to commit suicide.

Four days into the hike, Alex has just met a grandfather out hiking with his bratty granddaughter when a catastrophe occurs: an electromagnetic pulse sweeps through the area, causing the usual effects—disruption of telecommunications, electronics and electrical just about anything—but also killing (most) people over the age of sixty or so, and transforming younger people into ravenous bloodthirsty zombies. Not surprisingly, the grandfather dies as a result of the EMP disrupting his pacemaker, and Alex heads out, dragging the granddaughter with her. Along the way, they meet Tom, on leave from Afghanistan and the three make it to the nearby ranger station, only to discover the station empty and a generator mysteriously still running.

They remain here long enough to regroup and then head out of the wilderness area. Tom is injured in an attack from desperate not so terribly nice people and Alex makes him as comfortable as she can in a derelict shop and heads out to find help from a rumored community nearby. Unfortunately, the town is not as altruistic as she’d hoped…and I’ll end the description here.

Warning: spoilers below.

On the plus side, this is the best post-apocalypse teen/YA romance dystopia I’ve read so far for my blog which I hadn’t read before (yes, that works out to be a compliment. I read a lot.) The physical horror aspects of the zombie plague as presented by Bick are horrifying indeed–don’t read this if you can’t stand gore and corruption as there’s quite a lot of both, as might be expected in a book involving flesh eating cannibalistic zombies with no table manners whatsoever. The mental horror of trying to figure out what’s happened, what the long term implications of the disruption of society and who one may trust in this transformed world are also well done; kudos to Bick for decent characterization and depiction of inner turmoil.

Another plus for me: the book has a strong heroine. Alex was a strong determined heroine coping with what would ordinarily be life shattering problems–death of her parents and an incurable brain tumor on the verge of killing her. She is understandably upset and traumatized by what’s happened previously but doesn’t wallow in self-pity. When the apocalypse comes, she doesn’t panic but rather assesses what to do (find the ranger station) and whether she’s got the resources to get there. She’s reasonably well equipped in terms of skills to survive on her own in the wilderness, at least in the short term: she’s got map-reading skills, she can use a gun, she knows to add disinfectant to water she finds before drinking, and so on. I can appreciate someone who, when planning escape from a cult surrounded by flesh-eating zombies, makes a list of what she’ll need to survive in the wilderness rather than fleeing blindly into the woods. She’s a beacon of feminine strength on a par with Katniss from The Hunger Games; good role models for girls are a bit thin on the ground in recent YA science fiction generally, so this is a huge plus for me.

The cause of the apocalypse is at least partially plausible. Somehow, I doubt zombification and killing off humans of reproductive age are aftereffects of an EMP; as a plot device, this is rather on a par with reversing the polarity of the neutron flow or applied phlebotinum. EMPs do disrupt electrical equipment (specifically telecommunications) and electronic circuitry…of which there is a great deal more in our modern society than we may realize. However, picking a plausible cause for world destruction is hard enough based on current science if you are both a qualified scientist and a gifted writer. Picking one that’s going to be plausible to all fans of post-apocalypse dystopia now and in future decades is virtually impossible2. I’m willing to cut Bick some slack here; she’s writing a post-apocalyptic dystopic romance here, not a political thriller, and EMPs are no less plausible than a “Rage” virus. Sometimes you just have to shrug and say “O-kay, the zombie apocalypse is upon us. How is the book otherwise?” and yes: I think that people’s reactions in Ashes ARE plausible enough to carry the plot.

I know people will react in different ways to a situation like this; some will retreat into isolation but I suspect that most people will band together for safety, whether we’re talking a comparatively understandable event, such as earthquake or invasion, or something mysterious or supernatural…such as an EMP causing zombification. Given the conservative religious nature of a great deal of the United States’ population, it doesn’t surprise me that at least one of these survivalist groups would be a cult. Given the politically conservative nature of a great deal of the United States’ population, it doesn’t surprise me that at least one of these survivalist groups would resemble the Bills from Chris Offut’s The Good Brother.

I’m not too crazy about specific aspects of the book. I’m in the camp that holds Ashes reads like two books combined a bit awkwardly–I don’t much care for how Bick handled the transition between the two, but then far more skilled authors seem to have the same problem3. However, taken individually, I do appreciate those two halves, as the author switched from “isolated friends traveling through wilderness” to “running afoul of a society attempting to deal with world-shattering catastrophe”. The fact that I’m not crazy about cliff hanger first books in a trilogy isn’t Bick’s fault.

I’m not crazy about the introduction of Love interest #2. Love interest #1 is the more interesting of the two, but then Alex transfers her affection to Love Interest #2, who strikes me as implausibly Good. He manages to cross trackless wastes while holding off mindless zombies with a bow and arrow, he’s equally interested in scavenging books for the community as food and medical supplies4 and is the potential Leader of His Community whereas Love Interest #1 is just a soldier with PTSD. In real life, absent any apocalyptic events, I’d have taken #2 hands down, but I can’t see Alex being that much of a bookworm. Indeed, I suspect that we’ll find out in the sequels that #1 has a better chance of surviving the figurative fallout from the EMPs that destroyed the world as we know it.

Who’d want to read this book? I’m going to go out on a limb and say pretty much any reasonably non-squeamish teenagers who like science fiction. I’d have loved this when I was the target demographic, and while I love the classic dystopias and post-apocalypse fiction, I can see that Ashes‘ modern elements appealing to teenagers today. Despite the protagonist being a person of the female persuasion, I can see boys liking Ashes. There are some chicklit elements–a passionate kiss or two when Alex gets going with Love Interest #2–but these strike me as secondary to issues Alex is trying to solve, and to the plot of the book as a whole: survival in a world which lacks all the gentleness and amenities of civilization. But then I’m one of those people who think it’s neither masculine or feminine but rather human to reach out and form trusting bonds with people around us when facing insurmountable barriers.

Just for those who like external links for double checking facts and finding out more about the book:
1) there’s an interview with the author here
2) Review of book here
3) another review of the book here
4) yet another review

1so far as I know, while Michigan is quite real, the locations named in Ashes are fictitious; I think they’re based on northern Michigan or the U.P.?
2looks sternly at Dreamsnake
3looks sternly at Angela Carter and Robert Heinlein
4not that I mind an author plugging books, but books probably wouldn’t be MY first concern under the circumstances and I’m a librarian

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