Monday 23 September 2013

REVIEW: Ashfall, by Mike Mullin (4.5*)

(Tanglewood, 2011)

"The ash looked almost white in the dim light, giving us a ghostly aspect.  Maybe we were ghosts of a sort, spirits from the world that had died when the volcano erupted.  Now we haunted a changed land.  Would there be any place for us in this new, post-volcanic world?"

I don't know why I'm struggling to write reviews at the moment - except that I'm reading like a maniac instead! - but I'm determined to get a few done this week even if they're a bit rubbish.  I want to be a little more up to date by the time we go on holiday at the start of October, especially given how much reading I'm hoping to do while I'm there.  I'll be even further behind if I don't get a crack on! 

So, Ashfall.  I can't remember where I first heard about it, but it immediately grabbed my interest and I ordered a copy the same day.  It's basically an environmental-apocalypse-type dystopian novel, for older YA readers, hypothesising about what would happen if the supervolcano squatting under Yellowstone actually erupted.  Within the first few pages Alex, a teenager left alone in Cedar Falls while his parents and sister head off to visit his uncle a couple of hours' drive away, has seen his house destroyed by a falling chunk of burning debris.  Escaping to the safety of his neighbours' house, the relentless deafening booming of the eruption, happening 900 miles away, is the next thing to hit, continuing for several days.  When it finally stops, all that's left is darkness, and rumbling thunder, and the ashfall, drifting grey...

Once this set-up is complete, the survival story takes over.  It actually reminded me a tiny bit of The Hunger Games in that respect, as every possible extreme of human behaviour is brought to the surface by the ongoing catastrophe.  Leaving his neighbourhood behind, Alex sets out for Warren, where he hopes he'll find his family safe at his uncle's farm.  En route he meets Darla, an earthy farm girl with some of the practical knowledge he'll need to stay alive, and she falls in with him on his journey.  On the way they have to balance their own needs - defending themselves and their property, and finding food where they can - with retaining their humanity, helping people they meet on the road and aiding community survival efforts as they pass through.

I was quite impressed by how thoroughly Mullin had thought everything through, working in every imaginable consequence of an environmental disaster in a scarily realistic way.  He covers the ongoing need for food and shelter, the lack of water and power, the scarcity of available medical help, and the collapse of authority.  He explores the possibilities for corruption and panic, and the way that while most people will instinctively come together and work hard to keep life going, others will allow their most brutal impulses to come to the fore and exploit the vulnerability of others, out of need or just for kicks.  It's amazing how quickly a civilisation can fall apart once people realise the fragility of the social boundaries we all live by.

Overall I was genuinely impressed by this novel, particularly given the rather cheap feel of the cover design and the book itself, which did ring alarm bells a bit when I first bought it!  I was completely gripped by the end of the first chapter, and remained hooked through every twist and turn, every tentative encounter and dangerous confrontation, that Alex (and later, Darla) encountered on the road to Warren.  There were some truly horrific moments (hence the Hunger Games comparison), including one early on which I felt might have been a bit TOO gratuitous - I have a strong stomach these days but this particular incident made me feel a bit queasy - and if you can't read any scenes of animals being harmed then you might want to skip this one.  After all, the aim is survival, and food is food...  Blood and gore aside, however, I thought it was superbly written and emotionally astute (yes, I cried at least once), and I can't wait to read the next installment of Alex and Darla's adventures in the second book, Ashen Winter.

Bonus points: for the extras at the back.  Mullin includes a few pages of information about the Yellowstone supervolcano - and others like it - along with some suggested further reading, which I've duly scribbled down for later.  He also has an amusing 'about the author' page, in which he mentions that he's a black belt in Songahm Taekwondo (something he shares with his young protagonist, who naturally finds it rather helpful on his journey!) and lists some of his crappiest jobs to date, wryly noting that "he's really hoping this writing thing works out."  I hope so too...

Source:  I preordered this book from Amazon UK... then didn't read it.  Naturally.