October 05, 2011

Let Me Live, Unseen, Unknown (review: Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick)

Ashes (Ashes Trilogy #1)
Ashes
Ilsa J. Bick
Quercus 2011

Alex is half way up a mountain when it happens, where she’s been undertaking a personal quest and coming to terms with a terminal illness – a monstrous brain tumour that she is tired of fighting… Alex, really, is all fought out. In the middle of a chance meeting with an old man, his granddaughter and their rather frightening dog she suddenly finds herself wracked by terrible pain, vomiting blood and rolling on the forest floor.  At first she assumes that her end has come, that the monster in her head has won their long battle… that is until she realises that the old man is dead, the little girl covered in blood and the dog terrified. Whatever has just happened to Alex has also happened to them.  The thing is, Alex feels different – stronger and she’s not the only one who’s different.  As Alex and the child move through the woods, they quickly realise that those who haven’t been killed by the strange event have been changed into the most unimaginable of horrors…

Alex is a remarkable character.  Living with a brain tumour, she has also lived through the death of both parents, having to face difficult realities far more than a normal seventeen year old.  Things don’t really get any better for her over the course of Ashes with mortality, violence and bitter survival raising their heads around every corner.  She is at once extremely strong, yet believably vulnerable throughout the book, showing real grit as well as real fear. She’s also extremely confused by her bodies reaction to what comes to be known as the “zap” – is her tumour still killing her?  Or could it actually be aiding her?  Her initial reaction to Ellie, the small girl landed in her care, could seem cold but in actual fact seems to be a fair response to a somewhat recalcitrant child in an impossible situation and their growing friendship is very touching.  Later in the story, Alex’s conflict over what path to take is again extremely believable – her struggle in deciding between easy and right is understandable and it’s surprisingly difficult to predict her ultimate decision.

Ellie herself is particularly nicely drawn.  Like Alex, she too has been faced with the reality of death but unlike Alex she’s been too young to really process it and has been left angry, frustrated and terrified.  As she slowly thaws she becomes a well rounded, realistic character and her growing friendship with her dog, Mina, is particularly moving.  As the third major character, Tom is again a young man who has faced his own mortality, in his case as a soldier in Afghanistan.  Tom injects a modicum of warmth into their small group, balancing out the sometimes cool Alex and the frightened Ellie with a calm, centered reassurance.  However, he is clearly not without his own demons and while the friendship that grows between him and Alex is believable, it is also full of secrets.  Other characters come and go throughout with a fuller cast appearing towards the end of the novel.  Of these, Chris is the most interesting with Jess, Kincaid and the frankly skin-crawlingly creepy Yeager deserving honourable mention.

The mythology of Ilsa Bick’s apocalypse drips through Ashes at a sometimes frustratingly slow rate, for readers and certainly for the characters.  The “zap” has seems to have been caused by multiple electromagnetic pulses causing a technological black out and wreaking havoc with peoples brains.  While some have somewhat, er, improved senses the majority seem to have become completely feral – if not completely stupid, often illustrating a shrewd and terrifying intelligence.  I’m no scientist and I suspect the science in Ashes may be stretching the realms of possibility to the extreme but it’s so well written and the situations are portrayed with such assurance that it really doesn’t matter. With the “zap”, Bick has created a world with multiple problems, all catastrophic.

What sets Ashes above many other post-apocalyptic offerings is the standard of debut author Bick’s writing. Sometimes stark, often extremely frightening it is also strangely beautiful.  In particular her description of scent is extraordinary – from blood smelling like “wet pennies” to the smell of snow still to come being described as “frozen aluminium” it is all amazingly evocative.  She also is able to counter scenes of brutality and violence with those of extreme warmth and comfort, cunningly luring readers to a place of relaxation before ending chapters with such bombs as “It was the last good time they would have” – and that’s fairly early in.  Don’t get attached to anyone is the message that this book carries, and it is one worth keeping in mind when reading.  Increasingly, these days, I find myself sighing wearily at the thought of another trilogy, but in the case of Ashes I’m full of hope.  Post-apocalyptic fiction, when done well, can be utterly chilling and extremely compelling and Ashes is both – Shadows, released 2012 can should be anticipated eagerly as, despite its somewhat unrelenting bleakness, this is a story that I can’t wait to hear progress.

Ashes is available now.  Many thanks to Quercus for sending me this title to review.

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