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LizzieBennet

Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

SPOILER ALERT!

Ashes

Ashes  - Ilsa J. Bick

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-Sentence Summary: Two books in one (let's call them Before Rule, and After Rule), this book alternates between gripping action scenes and dull internal monologues, although thankfully the former are more common than the latter.

 

A re-cap, in case I ever decide to read the sequel, Shadows:

 

Before Rule: Alex has a brain tumor that has robbed her of her sense of smell and some memories of her parents. She takes her parents' ashes into the Waucamau in Michigan on her way to Lake Superior to scatter the ashes and maybe kill herself, depending on how she feels. She meets an eight-year-old girl, Ellie, and Ellie's grandfather, Jack. A series of electromagnetic pulses kill all their electronics, and kill Jack, along with anyone else who is middle-aged. Because of the EMPs, kids who have gone through puberty become 1. the Changed (zombie-like, cannibalistic), or 2. the Spared, who show no changes at all. Some adults who had brain impairments (e.g. Alzheimer's) become the Awakened, returning to their former glory. A handful of the Awakened gain super-sensory powers. Alex herself regains her sense of smell and is able to sniff out human emotions and intentions, and also detect the Changed. Dogs and wolves have this skill, and have also taken a fancy to Alex.

 

Enter Tom, who saves Alex and Ellie from his zombie-buddy, Jim. Alex and Tom become fond of each other, and the three of them hole up comfortably in a Ranger station for a month and a half or so until they decide (huh?) to leave it because winter is coming. Hmm. Well, I suppose without this stupid decision there would be no novel. Of course their trip goes awry (wait, explain to me again why they'd leave a safe haven again, just as winter is setting in?), and Ellie and her dog are stolen by some bad people, while Tom is shot in the thigh. Tom is dying of infection in the office of a gas station when Alex leaves him to get help.

 

After Rule: Alex is taken in by the town, after she convinces them to try to retrieve Tom, who has unfortunately vanished. Peter runs the show in Rule, guided by five Elders (there should be a sixth?) in a sort of cultish, Amish-sect-ish, sexist town called Rule. Chris is second in command and sweet on Alex. A little out of character, Alex starts to fall for him, forgetting Tom (whom, granted, she thinks is dead). This second half is a little more boring than the survivalist, Before-Rule half, with Alex slowly becoming lulled into thinking that aw heck she should just stay, even though leaving is forbidden anyway, and even though the town's policy is to allow boys to "choose" any girl they want and homestead with her, which Alex understandably finds offensive. Alex finally attempts to leave when she finds her old whistle, which she had given to Ellie, on a Spared boy's dying body, snapping her back to her senses. Jess, Chris's grandmother, inexplicably says she'll help Alex leave town through the Zone--with some sort of lame excuse that it will test Chris and force him to challenge the Elders and their policies--and Alex buys it. In fact, she's being led to her death, fed to the Changed, as the Zone is full of these zombie kids (who seem to be evolving into intelligent beings). 

 

(Note: Ilsa J. Bick gives a thorough recap of the novel here, as a refresher course for readers before they move on to the sequels; her summary is obviously better than mine and includes the cast of characters.)

 

This was an engrossing book, but also a frustrating one. I was eager to return to it each day. I wanted to know what would happen next. I found the survival plot super exciting, and Alex's competence and resignation believable. I liked the way Ellie grew from a somewhat whiny little girl into a child who recognizes her world has changed and that she needs to put her big girl pants on. I liked the mystery of Tom's Afghanistan secret.

 

But I had believability issues. Given the strong bond that formed between Alex and Tom, I found it odd that she didn't tell him any of her secrets, yet she was willing to tell them to virtual strangers. She spills her sixth-sense to Yaeger--possibly the most questionably ethical adult she has met so far, next to Harlan--and she willingly tells Kincaid about her brain tumor. Was this meant to show some of the cultish aspects of Rule--that the brainwashing had already begun? Also, Alex forgets about Ellie the moment she's taken, only returning to pay lip service to her abduction much later. And when Tom vanishes, Bick gives Alex a too-brief and artificial-feeling mourning period, almost as if the author realized after the fact that she needed to add that in. Alex banishes feelings of attraction to Chris in memory of Tom, but it doesn't feel authentic given that she seemed to have forgotten about him at first. In short, there's a "telling" aspect to Alex's emotions, we don't have a good sense of what she really feels. Now, perhaps Bick wanted that to be the case--that Alex is muddled and doesn't know what she feels--but the prose felt more massaged than that; that Bick tried to clean up Alex's feelings but didn't quite succeed. I hate to jump on the anti-love-triangle bandwagon, but really, what are the odds--when almost all teenagers in this world have been Changed--that two hunky, well-meaning guys who adore and want to protect Alex are Spared?

 

As a corollary to the believability issue, there were factual errors that took me out of the action, and compromised my feeling that these were real events:

 

1. While Ellie was waiting in the pick-up truck at a gas station, Alex and Tom met an old man, Larry, whose daughter (Dierdre?) was one of the Changed, whom Larry had shackled in the women's rest room. Tom gives Larry a gun to kill himself and Dierdre after they've left. Ellie sees him give the gun to Larry, pieces together why, and gets angry at Tom when he returns to the car. But in fact, Ellie wouldn't have known what the gun was for. Her first guess would have been that Tom gave Larry the gun for protection. It's not within an eight-year-old's grasp to leap to murder-suicide. It felt like a plot device, to create a tension between Tom and Ellie, and a statement between them about how "good" people should behave in this changed world.

 
2. Tom, Alex, and Ellie eat steak as their last meal, after they've been at the Ranger station for 1.5 months with no refrigeration, and then again when in the pickup truck on the road. There's no mention that these were MREs.
 
3. I wasn't sure where Alex's parents ashes were at all times, and I'm not convinced Bick knew, either. There were a couple of moments when it seemed they couldn't still be with Alex. At a certain point we lost track of the ashes simply because there was a strange, disjointed break in time between chapters (when Tom is shot by Harlan and Ellie is abducted). One chapter ends without us seeing how the abduction took place, and the next chapter is "three days later." Also, why in fact did Harlan keep the ashes, given that they weigh sixteen pounds? (At the end of the book, Alex seems to have left Rule without them yet again, though I'm sure Bick will send them along with Chris when he inevitably chases her down and revs up that love triangle.)
 
4. About Kincaid: "His scent reminded [Alex] so much of her father." In this passage Alex is using her super sense, getting a feeling of trust and comfort. But she didn't have her super sense of smell when her dad was alive. I think this is a continuity error the editors should have caught.
 
5. Yaeger recognizes the ashes as cremains because "teeth survive cremation." Well, in fact, crematories always crush whatever bone fragments haven't entirely broken down in the furnace, so you don't see teeth in there.
 
The writing was at times accomplished and at times frustrating. Some descriptions were beautiful (although, Ms. Bick, watch for overuse of the word "feathering"), only to be followed by something more pedestrian and teenage-sounding from Alex's POV. ("Of course," said Jess, but she might as well have said duh.)
 
And Alex tends to have unnecessary internal monologues that make the reader feel like they're suddenly slogging through a marsh. When Jess leads her out to the Zone, for instance, Alex labors through everything she (and we) knows about Jess, trying to piece together her motives. Sometimes Alex's ruminations are there to explicate plot information we should get in other ways. For instance, Alex uses deductive reasoning to figure out that the people of Rule are stealing Spared children--and while the reader is supposed to take the deduction as fact, it's actually a rather big leap from the information at hand. Similarly, the way Alex figures out that Chris has gone North while Peter has gone West, and the way she figures out that Jess is testing Chris (which actually proves to be wrong, but we're forced to listen to the reasoning anyway). It's almost funny the way she infers that Yaeger was sitting by a rainy window when he got his powers, because she smells "wet glass." Is that really the conclusion you'd reach from that scent? Also, a lot of Alex's ruminations occur when someone has asked her a question, and by the time she answers it, I've forgotten what they were talking about. 
 
Bick has a habit of "verbification." That is, she uses nouns as verbs, and I found it distracting. Verbification is not bad per se--how else would I tell my husband to microwave my cold tea for me?--but there are limits. Here are some examples that I found awkward:
 
Arming away tears, Ellie gave him a shaky smile
  
The light ghosted...
 
A razor of hurt arrowed across his face.
 
Nathan chinned in the general direction of the back yard.
 
Her stomach twisted and fisted like her hands in her lap.
 
Can we talk about trilogies? I really want to know what happens in this series, but frankly I'm not willing to wade through two more books to find out. I'd be willing to commit to two books, maybe. When will duologies become a thing?