It’s been over six months since the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano. Alex and Darla have been staying with Alex’s relatives, trying to cope with the new reality of the primitive world so vividly portrayed in Ashfall, the first book in this series. It’s also been six months of waiting for Alex’s parents to return from Iowa. Alex and Darla decide they can wait no longer and must retrace their journey into Iowa to find and bring back Alex’s parents to the tenuous safety of Illinois. But the landscape they cross is even more perilous than before, with life-and-death battles for food and power between the remaining communities. When the unthinkable happens, Alex must find new reserves of strength and determination to survive.
-synopsis and cover art provided by goodreads.
Atmospheric Analysis: It’s always risky to claim that you’ve identified definite trends in book cover art (unless you’re talking about the most obvious examples), but I feel like the ‘gritty nature scene with block-capital text’ aesthetic is now prevalent enough to be something of a trend. I like it well enough, and I think this is a pretty good example of it. The red ribbon thing makes for nice contrast while also illustrating a pivotal scene in the book.
Planetary Class: Post-apocalytpic.
Mohs Rating: In an author’s note at the end of the book, Mullin says that he chose to go with the most severe hypothetical consequences of a supervolcano eruption when writing Ashen Winter. I’m no volcanologist, so I’ll take his word for it that the ice age-like conditions depicted in the book are at least plausible for the kind of scenario he’s describing, which would make this a definite 5.
Viability Rating: See above. The Yellowstone supervolcano exists, will almost certainly erupt again at some point, and could well effect the climate the way it’s shown to in Ashen Winter.
Xenolinguistical Assessment: Back when I reviewed Ashfall, I mentioned that Alex’s narrative voice occasionally slipped due to an odd word choice or phrasing. That’s still in effect here, but it’s very minor. Overall, Mullin’s writing is more than up to the task of depicting the bleak landscape Alex finds himself traversing in his quest to find his parents. There’s even a ‘teen pop culture’ reference that both works and is funny, which is a minor miracle in itself. (It probably helps that it’s the only one in the entire book.)
Expanded Report: Ashen Winter is a standard post-apocalyptic story told extremely well.
The setup isn’t likely to surprise anyone familiar with the genre: it’s six months after the events of the previous book, and the world (or at least the United States) is in the grip of a seemingly never-ending volcanic winter. The sun barely shines in a sky choked with ash and dust, a permanent layer of snow and ice makes it impossible to grow crops, and the remaining human population is on the brink of starvation. It’s what The Road might have been like if Cormac McCarthy had been feeling slightly less nihilistic when he wrote it.
Alex and Darla have spent the six months living on his uncle’s farm. Their long-term plans involve trying to eke out a living over the coming years and possibly getting married, but all of that changes when the farm is attacked by bandits. One of the men is armed with the shotgun that Alex’s parents took when they went in search of him shortly after the eruption. Spurred on by the thought that they might still be alive, or at least the desire to know for sure that they aren’t, Alex sets out across the frozen countryside to find them.
Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.
If the theme of Ashfall was, well, the ashfall, then the theme of Ashen Winter is ‘cold’. Alex and Darla are in constant danger of freezing to death, and one of the primary concerns facing the survivors is trying to grow enough food to survive. The cannibals from the first book return, except now they’re more numerous and better-armed than before. Alex’s journey is a constant battle against the cold and against the many, many people who will happily shoot him on sight, particularly after he’s separated from the ever-resourceful Darla. The degree to which he relies on her to bail him out of bad situations is thrown into sharp relief as soon as he has to fend for himself, which is a inversion of the way these things usually go. He gains a few different allies while trying to rescue Darla, but none of them are anywhere near as interesting as her.
About a third of the way through the book, I realised that Mike Mullin is one of the few authors who writes action scenes that I actually enjoy. Multi-chapter scenes of characters fighting or running for their lives usually have me skimming after a few pages unless I’m pretty sure someone is going to die, but I was never bored with Ashen Winter. Alex has to constantly outshoot, outfight and outdrive members of a vicious band of cannibals, which somehow never gets old. It helps that the action scenes feel realistic, and the characters’ victories hard-won, even when they’re depicting something straight out of a Hollywood movie. For example, there’s a scene where Alex spends quite a long time clinging to the underside of a moving truck that should be ridiculous but isn’t, largely because he ends up badly injured afterwards.
Mullin wisely decides to keep the focus squarely on the characters and their immediate predicaments. Alex and Darla hear rumors of the wider world, some of which suggest that not every nation has collapsed as thoroughly as the United States, but they never confirm any of them for sure. Not that it really matters – the characters are completely on their own, and they know it. There is never any suggestion that a regrouped government is going to swoop in to save everybody and rebuild society.
If I have any complaints about Ashen Winter, it’s that it suffers from the inevitable problems that plague almost all middle-of-a-trilogy books. Mullin thankfully doesn’t have Alex and Darla break up so he can repeat their romantic subplot from the first book, but it does feel as if that particular subplot is in stasis until the inevitable third volume. Their relationship is entirely believable despite its intensity, an area that YA has problems with in general, but I didn’t feel as if it had moved on in any real way by the end of the book despite their enforced separation. The overall arc of the characters trying to rebuild society also doesn’t advance in any appreciable way over the course of the plot. The book ends with everyone on the brink of what looks to be a dramatic step forward in that regard, though, so time will tell whether Ashen Winter ends up defying the odds by feeling entirely relevant in the context of a trilogy.
Right now, though, Ashen Winter is a no-brainer for fans of the first book. If you read Ashfall and enjoyed it, you have absolutely no reason not to get this. If you missed Ashfall but are in the mood for a smart, action-packed story of post-apocalyptic survival, you could do a lot worse than picking up both books at once and marathoning them. I seriously doubt you’ll be disappointed.