Once again I am pushed for time, partly because it’s Valentine’s Day and I promised The Imaginary Girlfriend that I would read Fifty Shades of Grey.
So, time for another review from the back catalogue, and as it’s Women in Horror Recognition Month any filler content in February from now on will focus on women writers.
Here’s my review of Ashes by Isla J. Bick, as it appeared in Black Static #27, except for any pesky editorial corrections:-
The feral cannibal teenagers in Isla J. Bick’s post-apocalyptic novel ASHES (Egmont hardback, 468pp, $17.99) aren’t zombies, but for all practical purposes they might as well be. An event, something that is never nailed down but hypothesised as the explosion of an EMF device, knocks the US over like a ninepin. Technology mostly goes down the crapper, while millions die. Teenagers are turned into flesh eating maniacs, with added strength and speed, and the surviving adults must take steps to protect themselves from their own offspring. Children and dogs are particularly valued for their ability to sense when the feral teens are nearby, but of course the children must be watched carefully in case they change too.
Bick’s viewpoint character is the teenager Alex, who has a tumour growing in her brain, and at the start of book has decided to eschew further treatment, hiking into the woods with the ashes of her parents. One of the few teenagers who seems immune, she makes her way back to whatever remains of civilisation to find pretty much every hand turned against her: the teens want to eat her, and the adults want to kill her before she eats them. She bonds with soldier Tom and the child Ellie, but becomes separated from them on the road, eventually finding her way to Rule, where a priesthood of sorts holds sway and a cadre of immune teens form the backbone of the local militia. Discovering that she has special abilities, Alex becomes a pawn in the power struggle between various factions in Rule.
Ashes is being marketed as YA, but there’s no stinting on the gore, with some scenes of slaughter that’ll almost certainly snag it an 18 Certificate if the story is ever made into a film, images that will linger in the consciousness of the reader long after the book is done . Inevitably it brings to mind a whole raft of similar genre work, with the event echoing the pivotal occurrence of TV series Flash Forward and in the division of the human race into adults and feral teens there are echoes of Simon Clark’s early novel Blood Crazy and David Moody’s Hater trilogy.
Bick makes the material her own though, mixing and matching the familiar elements to create something not quite like anything that’s gone before. She writes well, a seemingly effortless style that keeps the pages turning at a fearsome rate, with characters and reader alike deprived of the chance to catch their breath as the next hurdle to be surmounted looms ever larger. The book is incident packed, each challenge following on from the previous one, a seamless flow of events.
Alex is a credible protagonist, introspective and wise for her years thanks to all she has gone through – the tragic death of her parents and illness, undergoing chemotherapy while her peers swoon over Robert Pattinson. And yet Bick doesn’t lose sight of the fact that she is a teenager, with hormones raging when confronted with the manly Tom. Slightly older, a soldier on leave, he comes complete with the skill set necessary to survive and the good looks to provide the requisite love interest, the perfect foil for Alex in fact. Completing their impromptu family grouping is Ellie, at first very much a spoiled child used to getting her own way, but also somebody who is dealing with grief for the first time in her short life, and growing as the story progresses.
This is a tale of the apocalypse, and as with all such there’s a pressing need to adapt, for the characters to embrace a pragmatism that will enable them to survive. Bick doesn’t allow them to duck the hard choices. Ellie must leave the corpse of her grandfather behind. Tom must shoot a dear friend or allow him to murder Alex and Ellie. In a scene that nearly tears the three apart, they must assist the suicide of a man who keeps his changed daughter chained up in a public toilet. And Alex has to decide exactly what role she is to have in the community of Rule.
And, as far as that goes, Rule is something of a mixed blessing, catching just the right combination of rustic welcome and fear inducing fundamentalism, so that you accept it for what it is. The power struggle within the community is well portrayed, with Alex completely unsure what is going on, and the final revelation is suitably horrific, with the suggestion that this place of sanctuary is tainted with blood and sacrifice. Implicit in Rule’s existence is the idea that in the face of the collapse of civilisation it takes a certain kind of fanaticism to thrive and prosper, though outwardly the community may appear altruistic and many of its people are good hearted. If I have a reservation, it’s that given the time scale of the novel Rule seems to have taken root almost overnight, as if its founding principles were there ready and waiting for the opportunity afforded by the apocalypse. And perhaps that’s a subtext of the book also, that ruthless ideologies do well when times are bad, the negative side of the pragmatic’s coin.
The ashes of the title represent both the remains of civilisation and, on a personal level, Alex’s journey to closure, and if I have one serious problem with Ashes it’s that readers are denied closure. The book is the first in a series, and that in itself is not a problem, but it’s not self-contained. It ends on a cliff-hanger, with Tom and Ellie missing, Alex still unsure of her powers and staring death in the face. After spending nearly 500 pages with these characters, I felt I deserved something a little better than the book world’s equivalent of TV’s tune in next week to find out what happens.