Also see my review of ASHEN WINTER, DARLA'S STORY, and SUNRISE
Ashfall by Mike Mullin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The debut ya coming-of-age journey of Alex, against the unrelenting eruption of Yellowstone's volcano thrusts the reader into a fast-paced read that doesn't let up from the first pages. It is epic in the telling at almost 500 pages that sail by with the quick turning of the page to find out what else Mullin deemed necessary to throw at the poor boy. An honorary eagle scout award should be given to Alex for all he must endure on a journey to reconnect his family after the world goes to hell and ash and Alex's priorities take an abrupt 180 from video games and a weekend alone, to finding his parents and his sister are okay and alive and are reunited. The massive eruption hits a bit too close to home, and smacks of other recent atrocities our country has endured, with a realism that is sobering and terrifying.
In the crazy, upturned world that is post ASHFALL, Alex must learn to endure the initial days of eruption, coupled with the relentless booming, lack of electricity or any form of communication, and a world thrust under the dark umbrella of ash endlessly falling and covering everything like a grave.
At first alone, Alex is able to find help and support from his neighbors, the couple Darren and Joe. Once the initial wave of eruptions subside, humanity begins to turn upon itself in a crazy kill or be killed mentality. Alex responds by fleeing and determining to make his way to Warren, Illinois from Cedar Falls, Iowa on foot. Alex's fast thinking includes his father's skis, which turn out to be an efficient way to traverse the ASHFALL, and other survival instincts to preserve water and food for the long journey.
Alex's journey is frought with peril after peril. Danger upon danger. And a heaping measure of bad luck and ill will. His path crosses with a number of people who aren't offering help, but rather, imminent danger. Not everyone is out to get him, or his supplies, and those who can help do help in a variety of ways. Alex realizes these people didn't have to help him, and may have been better off not risking themselves to extend any kindness toward Alex, but they help him despite such misgivings. No one knows this better than Darla and her mother, Mrs. Edmunds.
This brings me to one of my favorite/least favorite parts of the story that were equal parts "the horror!" mixed with "can't look away." Darla has a warren or a herd of rabbits holed up in the barn to keep them out of the ashy air that wrecks havoc on their tiny bodies. Let's just say that animal slaughter (sadly, this is not the only VIVID description found in the book) is cringeworthy and pageturning all at the same time. I was gobsmacked by how well these and other parts contributed to the overall harrowing survival story that is ASHFALL.
As for vivid minor characters, and memorable main characters, Mullin deftly wove these together with his plot chock full of surprises and twists that kept my stomach in knots for most of the read through. I related well to Alex, having taking karate classes with my son and having spent time as a boyscout growing up, where camping and hiking were regular parts of my week. I easily pictured myself trying to hone in on latent survival skills that had gone dormant with lack of use, perhaps atrophy might better describe it...nevertheless, I was lost in the urgency that survival brings: everyone needs water and food to survive. Next comes a need to fight against the elements and cold, as well as the bizarre weather changes dealt by the eruption, and this is just the tip of the ASHFALL.
I love the play between Alex and Darla, at first catty and downright meanspirited. Darla sees Alex as a parasite, leeching off of her and her mother's farm and survival knowhow. Without going into detail, Alex's arrival is one where he cannot avoid having his hands out and taking from the generosity of these two, and one he struggles to repay well behind his time with them.
I found other parts of the journey surprising, such as the revelation of how the government has responded to the disaster, and the contrast of how that response ACTUALLY plays out. One thought includes the camp. I'm purposing to not say more about this to keep the review spoiler free, but it will likely get your blood boiling the same way it did mine.
Because of the epic nature of the telling of this story, the masterful way that Mullins pulled off a realistic portrayal of a natural disaster, and the many different ways mankind could respond, I found this a quick and enjoyable read, cover to cover, and am therefore awarding ASHFALL a well-earned 5/5 stars. I am eager to see what comes next in ASHEN WINTER.
Alex starts out a selfish, entitled typical teen of today, and grows into the young man, wizened by the exploits he and Darla endure seperately and together on an epic journey you won't soon forget. I know I won't. An amazing read. Highly, highly regarded and recommended.
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