Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Marvelous Michigan Month: Ashes review

Happy Halloween!  I hope you have a wonderful day in all that you do, be it spooky or fun, or just surviving Hurricane Sandy and all that it brings.

Today also wraps up my Marvelous Michigan Month.  I'll look to review books relating to Michigan at least once a month, and it would be cool to have another month devoted to it next year.  I hope you have enjoyed it, and found some interesting books by Michigan authors or set in Michigan.

This last piece is unfortunately my least favorite of the books I've shared in the past 31 days.  It has monsters and scary stuff, though, so it's a bit of a fitting choice for Halloween.  Let me tell you about Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick.

Michigan connection: Ashes is set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in the fictional Waucamaw Wilderness.  The Waucamaw Wilderness is based on the Porcupine Mountains and the Keweenaw Peninsula.  The author told me so.  (Author's web site FAQ, comments dated Sept. 9.)  Watersmeet and KI Sawyer Air Force Base are mentioned; other municipalities are fictional.
"A" is for Watersmeet. To the northwest, marked in green, is the Porcupine Mountains State Park.
Screenshot taken from Google Maps.
Checkouts: Coming soon to the charter school library, along with the sequel, Shadows
Typical reader: Teens looking for apocalyptic books
Source: Snowbound Books

Synopsis: Alex has headed north to be alone, scatter her parents' ashes at Lake Superior, and cope with (or not cope with) her terminal brain tumor.  Shortly after meeting an older hiker and his incredibly bratty granddaughter, an electromagnetic pulse changes the world around them - killing the man, frying all electronic devices, and giving back Alex's sense of smell.  Now she's stuck with the nasty child, who causes more grief than she's worth.  Luckily, a veteran named Tom comes across them at a crucial moment, and they begin to try coping with their changed world and surviving the horror it has wrought.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars, and that might be generous

The best way to handle this book is to give you the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Let's start with the good.

Good.  I don't often read science fiction; I lean more toward fantasy.  The science fiction here is very interesting, in a positive way.  How exactly would an electromagnetic pulse interrupt our existence?  This was clearly researched, and it provides plenty of fodder for laying awake thinking at night.

Ms. Bick is a child psychiatrist.  You've probably heard the saying, "Write what you know."  She certainly does that.  If you like complex, flawed, messed-up characters, you've come to the right place.  She likely has worked with plenty of people that don't cope well with life (to be tactful), and she knows how to describe them.

I really liked the imagery sparingly used in the novel.  It's very colorful, very metaphorical.  One description that particularly stood out to me was, "A sparrow of curiosity flitted over the girl's face."  (Page 38 of the hardcover edition.)  Unfortunately, this style disappears after a while.

Bad.  The "bad" of this book gets into some literary tropes that I'm really quite tired of.  First, we have that ever-present bane of young adult literature: a love triangle.  (Head, meet desk.)  Neither guy is particularly bad, though both are potentially objects of mutual affection to Alex because of circumstances that have thrown her together with each.  But what's particularly odious about the love triangle situation (warning: spoiler) is that if Alex is to stay with Chris in the town, she'll have to give up on finding and rescuing Tom.  Plus it would mean giving in and becoming complacent with the wishes of those in charge of the town.

The town is bad.  Now, everything I have to say about the town Alex takes refuge in is a bit spoilerish, because it all happens in the latter half of the book, after certain things happen that lead Alex to seek out said municipality.  It's oppressive, and has the trappings of a cult.  Must every zombie book have a cult?  I understand that people turn to religion in times of crisis.  But it's overplayed.  You could substitute Mary's hometown in The Forest of Hands and Teeth (reviewed last fall) for Rule in Ashes, and not have too much different, save for little particulars and how realistic it is.

Ugly.  You know how I said that Ms. Bick writes what she knows?  That's a double-edged sword.  Ellie, the little girl that is near Alex when the EMP detonates, is a real piece of work.  Take the worst little urchin you've ever dealt with and then multiply that tenfold.  Before the EMP killed her grandpa, Ellie was not only miserably sullen and combative, she also shatted Alex's coffee pot and dented her camp stove, and threatened harm to her own dog.  After that, she tore Alex's map, refused to cooperate with anything, started a landslide that knocked Alex's water bottle away, spilling it all, and with the landslide also managed to push Alex's pack off a cliff.  And that was within the first 55 pages.  "Ugly" doesn't cut it for this child.

When you read an apocalyptic zombie novel, do you expect zombies?  Yes?  Skip this book.  Because the amount of times that Alex encounters the "Changed" (which are arguably zombies) about a handful of times.  When they and their actions are described, it is wonderfully creepy and gruesome, and had me questioning whether this is really appropriate for teens.  But then the gruesome factor pretty much went away.

This book has gotten some high marks from other reviewers.  And it isn't wholly a bad book.  I just found a lot to grumble about.  If you've read it, what did you think of it?

I hope you've enjoyed my Marvelous Michigan Month.  Please let me know what you thought of this feature.


  1. Read the second book, Shadows if you want more of the "Changed" but, beware of your stomach. Lots of gore (but I really enjoyed the book!)

    Great review!

    1. I do have Shadows sitting around; maybe I'll give it a go. Tom shows back up in it, right?

  2. I have to admit I enjoyed this one. Yes, it has some cliches...but loved it because it kept me on the edge of my seat. Shadows did as well. And I'll second Annette: if you want more zombies (a unique take on them I think) stick around for Shadows. Though, if you didn't like the first book...not sure you'd really want to stick around for the second.

    1. I might give it a read, if there are more zombies. Thanks.