Ashes is a harrowing, tense journey through hell. That is, where hell is what happens when modern humans are deprived of technology and other creature comforts and immediately de-evolve into something less than animals. It's a kind of Hunger Games meets The Road. Like Hunger Games, it features a female protagonist who has better-than-average survival skills--knows guns, etc. Like The Road, it chronicles a journey through a post-apocalyptic landscape, complete with a whining child whose primary purpose is to get everyone else into trouble.
For Alex, a seventeen-year-old girl, life wasn't all that peachy before The Zap, as she calls it. A few years before, her parents had died in a helicopter crash. Then just a year or so later, Alex was diagnosed with a malignant, inoperable brain tumor. Everything modern medicine has to offer was thrown at "The Monster," but it kept growing. Now, facing her own mortality, Alex decides to take one last camping trip. Alone.
Initially, all is well, since Alex knows a lot about camping and other wilderness skills. Then along comes eight year old Ellie and her grandfather, Jack. Ellie is an insufferable, nasty brat. Minutes after their meeting, The Zap, a huge electromagnetic pulse from some unknown source, blasts Alex, Jack, Ellie and everything everywhere.
Birds falls from they sky. Animals go crazy. Anything with solid state electronic stops working--forever. Jack drops dead. Alex and Ellie are both knocked out.
When Alex awakes, she finds that her sense of smell, taken by the tumor, is back and she is now saddled with horrible, whiny, snarly Ellie. Now, after a few pages of Ellie, I was tempted to bail. The cute kid in peril trick doesn't work for me. Make the kid a brat...even less so. Fortunately, Ellie lightens up and gets more pleasant pretty soon. As I alluded to above, however, her primary purpose seemed to be bumbling into danger and nearly getting Alex (and Tom) killed.
In between trying to stay alive--despite Ellie's best efforts otherwise--Alex comes up with a plan--to make it to a ranger station. Alex and Ellie soon find that they must face another problem beyond basic survival. Zombies. It turns out the EMP has three different effects on humans. A, it kills them outright. B, it rattles their brain, but leaves them alive. C, it fries all the neurons in their brains and turns them into bloodthirsty, super fast predators with a taste for raw meat. Tom, a young soldier on leave, who was out camping with friends, saves Ellie and Alex from one such zombie. And so we have the cast for the first half of book. Alex and Tom decide that rather than heading south for the winter, that they will head north, where there will be fewer people and zombies to contend with. Of course, that plan goes awry as well.
At which point, the tone of the story changed from journey through zombie-infested woods to life in a crazy cult. I didn't particularly mind the change of pace, but the disappearance of cast members who seemed important felt a little odd. The two phases of the story did work together in an odd way. They each served to demonstrate how civilization is really just a thin veneer, both for those who are outside of civilization, but also for those who seem to be functioning within the bounds of a normal society. The normal society here being the village of Rule, a tiny, highly conservative backwater that has managed to maintain aspects of civilization, despite The Zap. But the question is, at what cost?
Unlike The Road, the world of Ashes is believable. The Road, with its premise that all life except humans, has been wiped out, is preposterous. Even in the event of nuclear winter, some life, especially resilient pest species like rats, would survive. In Ashes, all other life on earth is largely unaffected by humankind's losses. This makes for a much more realistic and impactful exploration of human nature and survival.
My only quibble lay with the village of Rule, which felt almost too organized for a society that had recently seen the destruction of all electronically based technology. Rule's easy transition to a low tech world is explained, but the explanation felt sort of tacked on, like perhaps the editor told the author she needed to address the issue, and "plop," here's a sentence or two for that purpose.
Ashes ends with a cliffhanger. I mean, as in, leaves the reader with their foot hanging off the raggedy end of the story line. Since I didn't initially know this was part of a trilogy, my first reaction was, "WTF?"
Gory. Gruesome. Grim. Ashes is all the things I love in a book.