Welcome to the Intergalactic Academy’s first co-review! Both Sean and I were so jazzed to read Ashfall that we’ve decided to double your pleasure, double your fun, double your over-thinking a
plate volcano of beans! Items of divergence in our opinion will be marked appropriately. Otherwise, assume we’re in general agreement. Anyway, hope you enjoy.
Under the bubbling hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone National Park is a supervolcano. Most people don’t know it’s there. The caldera is so large that it can only be seen from a plane or satellite. It just could be overdue for an eruption, which would change the landscape and climate of our planet.
Ashfall is the story of Alex, a teenage boy left alone for the weekend while his parents visit relatives. When the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts unexpectedly, Alex is determined to reach his parents. He must travel over a hundred miles in a landscape transformed by a foot of ash and the destruction of every modern convenience that he has ever known, and through a new world in which disaster has brought out both the best and worst in people desperate for food, water, and warmth. With a combination of nonstop action, a little romance, and very real science, this is a story that is difficult to stop reading and even more difficult to forget.
-synopsis and cover art courtesy of goodreads.
Sean’s Atmospheric Analysis: I’m something of a
crotchety old man snob when it comes to covers. I have certain things I dislike, chief among them being bland art of photoshopped models standing in front of glowy crap that has nothing to do with the plot, setting or emotional tone of the novel. Ashfall’s cover is like the antithesis of all that: it’s stark, well-made and suitably gritty given the book it’s attached to.
Phoebe’s Atmospheric Analysis: I have to disagree with Sean here. While I like the text effects of Ashfall‘s cover, I think it’s otherwise murky, weird (what’s with the mirror? Why does Darla have to get all up in Alex’s grill?), stiff, and dated. Looks right out of the ’80s, when illustrated covers were the rule. I don’t hate illustrated covers generally, but the execution of this one just leaves me cold.
Planetary Class: This is a post-apocalyptic story, but one that’s somewhat unusual in that it begins just before the ‘apocalypse’ occurs and mostly concerns itself with the immediate aftermath of said apocalypse.
Mohs Rating: Ashfall comes in at a solid 5 on the Mohs Scale. The ‘science fiction’ aspect deals with a natural disaster caused by a real-life volcano (the Yellowstone super-volcano) which has a distressingly high chance of actually erupting someday.
Planetary Viability: Ashfall is, at the very most, set in the extremely near future (the main character plays World of Warcraft in the opening pages) and could arguably be set in an alternate present. As I mentioned above, the Yellowstone super-volcano is both real and has a good chance of eventually erupting, giving the whole novel a solid foundation of credibility.
Sean’s Xenolinguistical Assessment: This is where the novel falls down a little bit for me. In terms of personality, Alex is entirely believable as a nerdy teenager, but his first-person narration can stray into strangely adult language and voice. The worst example of this is on the second page, where Alex talks about his father’s ‘malodorous plan’. I can accept that he might be a bit precocious when it comes to vocabulary (although there’s nothing in particular to indicate this), but ‘malodorous plan’ just isn’t the kind of phrase the vast majority of teenagers would ever use.
Thankfully, this kind of thing becomes less of a problem as the novel progresses. In general, the prose is functional and gets the job done. In some instances it becomes frighteningly evocative, as during the initial eruption itself, but for the most part it’s the events taking place that will hold your interest rather than the way Mullins describes them.
Phoebe’s Xenolinguistical Assessment: As a former nerd whose vocabulary was perhaps implausibly large, I didn’t bat an eye at Alex’s high diction or vocab. Within the first few pages he tells us that his shelves are packed full of sci-fi novels, which bought the novel’s credibility for me. I believed his voice, and while the writing here isn’t particularly pretty, the functional, clean prose mirrors the subsistence-level lifestyle that Alex comes to live.
Sean’s Expanded Report: As a kid, I developed a weird fascination with doomsday scenarios. I realise this is the kind of thing a lot of Internet People – you know the kind I mean – say to sound edgy and dark, but I’m serious. I was always fascinated with the many, many ways the universe could kill us all. That’s why I read up on asteroid impacts (likely to occur, have occurred many times in the past: interesting), supernovae (won’t happen to us: not as interesting from an apocalyptic viewpoint), gamma ray bursts (possible and spectacular, but very rare: fun as a curiosity) and, finally, super-volcanoes (present on Earth, all-but-inevitable, and overdue for eruption: the motherlode). My introduction to the last entry on that last was a documentary about the Yellowstone supervolcano, something which has continued to fascinate me ever since.
So it stands to reason that I’d enjoy a book like Ashfall. From the very first chapter, it shows an admirable willingness to follow its premise to its logical conclusions; this is no ‘tidy apocalypse’, where the characters can go through hell and back with nary a scratch to show for it. From the moment a piece of volcanic debris smashes into the roof of Alex’s house, he’s almost constantly terrified, exhausted, starving and dirty, all of which is described with the kind of attention to detail that will make you fervently grateful for running water and flushable toilets.
This is not an ‘adventure story’. Sure, Alex goes on a fairly epic cross-country journey to find his family, but it’s not the kind of experience anyone who isn’t truly masochistic going to want to emulate. Like in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, there’s a heavy blanket of dread smothering the dead, ash-choked wasteland that the book describes.
Ashfall is a triumph of razor-sharp world-building and evocative storytelling, which is why it’s something of a disappointment that its character don’t live up to the same standard. Alex himself is interesting enough as a main character, but his narration creates an odd sense of distance from the reader that makes it difficult to really get to know him. Darla, the main female protagonist, is much more engaging, but she doesn’t appear until well after the 100-page mark. The supporting cast alternates between being predictably bland and surprisingly engaging. Of particular note are Alex’s neighbours, who initially give him a place to stay when his house is destroyed. In what has to be a first for YA books that I’ve read, they’re a gay couple presented to the reader with absolutely no comment on their sexuality and no hint of stereotyping, so kudos to Mullin for joining the 0.05% of authors who manage to include characters like that without screwing it up royally.
Overall, Ashfall is a very welcome escape from the hordes of paranormal/magic/dystopian clones that are still making up a distressingly huge portion of the YA market. Those with odd doomsday fixations should run out and buy it immediately; everyone else can justifiably wait until their next trip to the bookshop, but no longer than that.
Phoebe’s Expanded Report: Until I picked up Ashfall, I’d forgotten how much I loved survival stories.
The genre is an odd match for me. In many ways, even for a sci-fi lover, my tastes run toward the stereotypically “girly.” I don’t like war stories. I don’t like action sequences. Soft sci-fi is usually the rule of the day, and while a few post-apocalyptic tales–Meg Rosoff’s romance-and-psychic-incest touched How I Live Now comes to mind–have stood out among recent reads as pretty nifty, I’d forgotten how much a gritty survival story can really resonate with me. After all, I didn’t even particularly love Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I found the lack of worldbuilding frustrating; the core emotional conceits, mawkish and unearned. I thought maybe Ashfall wouldn’t be for me, not because of any flaws inherent in it, but because it’s just not my type.
But the first few pages of Ashfall raised long-forgotten memories. In seventh grade, I was assigned Harry Mazer’s Snow Bound in English class. Though now I’m sure I’d find the novel slight, I was captivated. It was the story of a pair of grumpy teens holed up together in a broken-down truck during a blizzard. So many details have stayed with me–small, realistic touches that gave the novel much more texture than even the classics we read that year–like how they melt snow and chewing gum together over the cigarette lighter to make a very-poor-man’s tea. It wasn’t a romance, not quite, but it was about how harsh situations can change people, and it dealt with those situations and feelings honestly. I loved that book.
Snow Bound was part of a grand tradition of kid’s novels in that era that were hyper-realistic. Messy families and working class kids abounded, and so when Mazer wrote about a disaster situation, it seemed natural to approach it with such a strong attention to detail. In Ashfall, Mike Mullin does the same thing, but he takes it a step further–expanding the length and subject matter to something fitting with modern YA. But the honesty, the precise details, and the accuracy feel like they’re from another era, and I can’t help but fear that we’ve lost something as we’ve moved away from that time.
Sean feels that Ashfall was hampered by narrative distance. I don’t agree. This is the type of novel where everything is rendered so deliberately that aspects like narrative distance feel as if they’re simply the natural result of the characters’ actual identities. Alex isn’t a particularly special or flashy boy–that’s because he’s a normal kid, one who plays World of Warcraft (described accurately), does martial arts (described accurately), and has obnoxious friends (described accurately). If there’s distance between Alex and the reader, that’s because Alex is a normal kid dealing with absolutely abnormal events. As he’s separated from his family, he must confront death alone in a hundred different iterations, from the animals he skins and eats (described in unflinching detail), to the murder of those who he loves (described in . . . well, you get the idea).
Mullin never shies away from the truth, not once, in this book. As Sean says, there’s the admirable presence of a gay couple early in the novel’s pages (they’re allowed heroism rarely seen in media portrayals of QUILTBAG individuals). There are also the hard realities of everyday life: eating, using the bathroom, sex, disease. If you think this sounds like a grim book, then you’d be right.
It’s also transcendent.
Ashfall, through its precision and honesty, moved me in a way The Road never did. The romance that grows between Alex and Darla is one of the best ones I’ve ever seen in YA, and one that’s certainly earned after the trials the pair endures over the course of the book. Mullin manages to use these teenagers–sixteen and seventeen years old–to say something really affecting about romance, something true to the characters’ ages but unspeakably deep nevertheless.
The most important part of seeing Darla every night wasn’t the fooling around. It was the few minutes we talked while holding each other, the feeling of security I got with her, the feeling of being understood and loved. Before the eruption, I wouldn’t have believed that I could cuddle up every night with the girl who starred in my dreams and not be totally preoccupied with sex. But the trek across Iowa had changed something. I wanted, needed to see her so badly that it woke me up at night. But making out was incidental to my need–nice when it happened, but secondary to the simple pleasure of sleeping beside her. (440)