The first thing that needs to be said is that this book has been written for, and is aimed at, the young adult market. It is important to remember this not for any judgemental reasons or to demean the validity of the writing in any way but rather to illustrate the author’s high expectations of today’s book reading teens and her faith in their ability to handle complex and difficult subjects. Whether or not this unwavering conviction is justified remains to be seen but with a background in professional child and adolescent psychology, Ilsa J. Bick should know.
The basic premise of the story, without giving too much away, is that a lone, teenage girl out hiking in a remote part of America is caught in a cataclysmic event which, along with destroying the networks of communication and utilities on which civilisation depends also causes certain members of the population to become blood-thirsty mindless cannibals – namely, fellow teenagers; whilst affecting another, smaller percentage of people in even more surprising and imaginative ways. As fantastically preposterous as this all sounds, be assured that a good deal of research has gone into every idea and even those seemingly impossible hypotheses have, as the story unfolds, apparently plausible explanations.
At first glance the characterisation seems heavy-handed – recently orphaned, apparently unloved and with a malignant brain tumour, no less, our main protagonist is as flawed as any sixteen year old girl could get; an eleven year old girl who figures largely in the story is characterised as being typically stubborn and difficult whilst the romantic interest is provided by a swarthy, dashing young soldier. But as the story develops the main character’s problems are explored fully and sensitively; the younger girl mellows from the antagonist to the one with whom we sympathise and the man reveals a mysterious depth to his personality.
There are a surprising range of very adult issues brought up in this book including cancer, war (the middle east in particular) and even euthanasia, all of which are dealt with honestly and frankly and it is reassuring to imagine the youth of today having an understanding of the complexities of these subjects even if, in reality, a large number of readers will instead be drawn by the guns, gore and graphic brutality, of which there is plenty.
What is also striking about this novel are the short, snappy sections each of which is on average only two or three pages long, a concession which has been made, no doubt, with the demographic audience’s notoriously short attention span in mind but which serves equally well for, say, a busy parent or public transport commuter. The passages are as punchy as Mike Tyson and cleverly crafted to keep the narrative flowing. It would be very easy to imagine that this quality of writing might be unsustainable for any great length of time, particularly given the frequency of surprising cliff hangers at the end of almost every section but, be in no doubt, Bick has enough steam to power a locomotive and the initial excitement and suspense is maintained consistently throughout. This is particularly important since Ashes is intended as the first book in a trilogy and as such should make the reader feel like they are participating in an epic tale rather than being taken for a ride – having read this first book I feel fully assured that the whole story has been well thought out in advance and will continue to be delivered with the same enthusiastic, terrifying style.
Ashes is released on September 29th