This week for the #dystopianaugust read-a-long with Lenore of Presenting Lenore we discuss Ilsa Bick‘s Ashes.  A genre mash-up about a the journey a girl named Alex takes to survive a devastating EMP that leaves the country in a state of disarray both emotionally and physically.  You can read the first half of the discussion at Lenore’s which will post around 6am Eastern Time.

Title:  Ashes [amazon]
Author: Isla Bick [website] [twitter] [facebook]
Publisher: Egmont USA
Format: Paperback (ARC)
Source: Provided by publisher (via BEA)
Parental Advisory: cannibalism, violence, murder, captivity, religious oppression
Teachable Moments: survival



It’s funny, I actually enjoyed the second half of this book so much more! So we’re on total opposite ends of that spectrum.  I agree with you that here was no shortage of action during the Apocalypse and then the subsequent post-apocalyptic survival but it got a bit stale for me.  The wandering through the woods in the first quarter felt far too excessive and I have to admit that I got a bit lost in time there.  It felt like they were wandering for longer than they were and then we found out it had been such a short period of time.  I was also disconcerted by how quick people were zombified — there were obviously parts later in the story that explained this but having some allusions to it earlier may have helped me.

I was glad to see the initial survival portions tighten up in length but the dystopian part was the meat of the story.  Though some parts felt longer than others to read the way Bick crafted the novel’s overall progression was well done.  The movement from one focus to another was transitioned well and each part did a great job setting up the next.

I was down with the wandering in the woods because it gave such insight into Alex’s state of mind.  She’s in the forest to begin with because she has an important task she wants to fulfill before her brain tumor (probably) kills her.  She’s come to make peace with the idea of dying and then – wham – all the sudden an external threat  kicks in her survival instincts. In the midst of all the dying that’s going on, Alex suddenly has hope again for the first time – and her relationships with Ellie and Tom reflect that too.

I suppose.  Perhaps the disconnection for me was that it was the part of the story that felt most typical.  Something bad happened, people are scrambling to figure out what that was and then conveniently (in the middle of nowhere mind you) they come upon each other and voila a group is born.  It just felt a bit plot pointish. In the end, I know that’s mainly how things like that work so it made the story realistic to some extent but yea, I struggled with it the fact that it didn’t differentiate itself early enough.  I suspect that will cause many people to put it down too which is unfortunate.

For me, there was enough cool paranormal science in the early parts to think this was different from your typical survive the apocalypse fare. Also, I was really drawn in by Alex’s character and her journey.

Community vs Individuality

The most thought provoking portion for me was when Alex was in Rule.  The religious undertones and the cult-like lifestyle was an interesting and unexpected dynamic.  It also did a fantastic job of tying in the brain chemistry aspect of the story by aligning with the segregation of the different factions within town — the Awakened/Council, the Chosen, the Changed and the Banned.  The group dynamics probably could have been explored at greater depth but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything in this part of the story.  It was very clear that Alex (and a subset of the group) wanted to have free-will yet the larger whole of the community imposed rules and structure upon them.

What felt most intriguing to me was Alex’s relationship to Chris.  Her sudden romantic interest in him after she’d been rebelling against it for some time felt a bit mind control-ish to me.I kept waiting to for the other shoe to drop and find out there was some higher power controlling her actions or maybe another twist of science.  At times she was such an individual, plotting how to get out of Rule, but then others she embraced the community and it almost felt like she’d given up and accepted her life as it was in that moment.

The segregation of Rule based on brain chemistry was fascinating and a definite highlight of this section. After Alex being alone or in a small group for so much of the book, it was an adjustment to suddenly have to keep track of so many characters.  Chris, Peter and Greg – not to mention all the girls, the elders, etc.  In her character’s journey towards hope that blossomed in the forest, the next step would seem to be to embrace community – but is this the kind of community one wants to embrace?  Hardly.  So there’s a definite tension there.

Add to that the fact that she’s not been in any solid relationship (outside of her family) for a significant period of time.  Her brain tumor and subsequent treatment took her out of the social scene and any function that was interpersonally based.  She was used to being alone, in fact chose to make it so, so the progression of moving into small group interaction better prepared her for the larger scale of Rule.  As for embracing the community, again her general loneliness for the period of time leading up to the EMP perhaps influenced her desire to embrace.  Once she felt the connection in the small group she wanted to keep it at any cost, even her own free will.

What interested me was that despite the general isolation of her previous life she was fully capable of blending in and manipulating situations that were based on the principles of large group dynamics.  How is it exactly she’s learned to do that so quickly?  Is it survival instinct kicking in or is it something else?

Good question! I have a feeling we are going to learn a lot more about the advantages of her new abilities. And I can’t wait!

Ashes is a slow starting book but one that is definitely worth making your way through.  It has many touch points for good conversation and depth of thought.  I actually think (despite it’s length) it would be a good book club read particularly because of the events that are part of the last half of the book.  It’s one that requires reflection and I admit I had to ponder it for a bit before I fully decided I liked it.  Read it, let it marinate,  then have great conversation with a friend it will totally make you climb on board with this book.