Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) 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.
Thoughts: I previously praised Mike Mullin’s Ashfall (review here) for being a YA post-apocalyptic novel that was interesting, intelligent, and nflinchingly realistic when it comes to the brutality that can be exhibited by humans in a crisis. Ashen Winter is no exception to that praise, and was a fantastic and well-deserved follow-up to the previous novel in the trilogy.
The novel starts with Alex and Darla living on Alex’s uncle’s farm, doing what they can to survive. Considering that they supervolcano’s eruption has caused a brutal and long-lasting winter, this is more difficult than it sounds. Crops are dead or dying, food supplies are limited, people are getting sick and dying for lack of basic nutrition and medical care, and it’s all some people can do to keep from freezing to death in their sleep. But when Alex gets a sign that indicates is parents may be in danger, he chooses to leave that relative comfort and safety behind in order to look for them. Darla, of course, goes with him.
Much like in the previous book, Alex travels a lot and meets a great variety of people, getting into one dangerous situation after another, making the book fast-paced and full of action and tension. Flenser gangs roam the wilds, looking for people to kill and butcher so that they can maintain a supply of meat. The military is still rounding people up and putting them into camps that are far more brutal and terrifying than trying to survive in the blasted wilds. There’s plenty to keep you on the edge of your seat.
A little too much, I think, when you get right down to it. It reached a point where there was just so much going on that I reached action overload, and the tension of the situation was lost on me, replaced instead by the thought that Alex wouldn’t really be able to do half the stuff he was doing. Hanging from the underside of a truck after he’s been shot in the side and had his arm injured? No. Just no. I’m not saying he did it without getting further injured, but it’s very hard to believe he wouldn’t have caused himself far more damage than he would have been able to handle. Alex injuries often seemed to disappear during the action scenes, only to return later as mentions of how much he now hurts. Adreniline could account for him not noticing, but that doesn’t mean he had the simple ability to do what he did while so injured.
Mullin’s strength is shown once again, though, in his ability to think of the little details involved in living in such a post-apocalyptic situation. Ignoring the issue of injury and ability, there were so many little details thrown in to make this scenario a very believable one. Things like scurvy affecting people because of the lack of access to foods with vitamin C. Or descriptions of medical procedures without anesthetic. Mullin has great understanding of humanity, not just in the individual details but also on a larger scale. It’s very easy to imagine the more brutal elements he inserted here, like the previously mentioned flenser gangs and cannibalism. Or the knee-jerk reactions people in a crisis will have to strangers. Mullin doesn’t hold the reader’s hand and explain every single thing and every reaction that people exhibit, but instead lets the story flow, showing instead of telling, and that’s what makes this book such a great one.
Many people have complained about the violence and cruelty expressed in this series. Personally, I find them perfectly fitting to the story that’s being told. Cannibalism and prostitution and rape is going to happen. It happens in better times, and there’s no reason to think that it wouldn’t get worse in crisis, especially when people can gain power through it. It may not be a comfortable thing to read about, but it’s suited to its context, and it makes the story all the more real for their presence. You can’t have a story about post-apocalyptic survival without bringing in hard elements, and sanitizing them does a disservice to the audience.
Alex and Darla continue to be a romantic couple that I can actually enjoy reading about. They’re very devoted to each other without letting themselves get engulfed by their sgnificant other. They cling to each other out of a mix of desperation and emotion, a scenario that’s very realistic for the situation they’re in. They demonstrate maturity when it comes to both romance and sexuality. When Darla vanishes and Alyssa comes onto the scene, it certainly adds an interesting dynamic. Alyssa is desperate for affection and tries to get it the only way she knows how at that point, which is sexually. And again with the realism, because Alex’s reaction isn’t to shove her away and tell her that nobody can do it for him but Darla, and neither does he succumb and create one of those love triangles that are annoyingly popular in YA novels. His body reacts. He’s even tempted by her. But he still refuses Alyssa. I could have cheered aloud when I read that scene, because it meant that the author wasn’t going to dip into that annoying territory in order to create some needless romantic tension when Darla came back on the scene. The devotion that Alex shows to Darla is heartening, mature and enduring. They’re really a couple I can get behind.
Ultimately, if you want a hard story of survival in a brutal world, then read Ashfall and Ashen Winter. If you want something that shows the worst and best of humanity in a crisis, then read these books. If you want something that doesn’t flinch away from the things that we’re capable of when the push comes to shove, then you should be reading this series.
If you want a post-apocalyptic world that merely hints that bad things happen without actually bringing you into contact with them, then look for reading material elsewhere.
(Book provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.)