Sunrise, by Mike Mullin

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Publication date – March 17, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The Yellowstone supervolcano nearly wiped out the human race. Now, almost a year after the eruption, the survivors seem determined to finish the job. Communities wage war on each other, gangs of cannibals roam the countryside, and what little government survived the eruption has collapsed completely. The ham radio has gone silent. Sickness, cold, and starvation are the survivors’ constant companions.

When it becomes apparent that their home is no longer safe and adults are not facing the stark realities, Alex and Darla must create a community that can survive the ongoing disaster, an almost impossible task requiring even more guts and more smarts than ever — and unthinkable sacrifice. If they fail . . . they, their loved ones, and the few remaining survivors will perish.

This epic finale has the heart of Ashfall, the action of Ashen Winter, and a depth all its own, examining questions of responsibility and bravery, civilization and society, illuminated by the story of an unshakable love that transcends a post-apocalyptic world and even life itself.

Thoughts: Mike Mullin started the Ashfall series with Ashfall, followed it with Ashen Winter, and has now brought the series to its conclusion with Sunrise, a book that spans a suitably large period of time, often cutting out entire months and skipping ahead to a time when the characters’ lives aren’t dominated by the repetitive work of trying to build a life and survive in post-apocalyptic America. Ash from the supervolcano eruption is still plaguing the country, people are struggling to carve out some semblance of life from land that’s covered by ash and ice and where nobody can be trusted because everybody is out to save themselves. I’ve said before that this series is YA survivalist fiction at its finest, and this conclusion to the series is no exception.

Alex and Darla continue to grow closer, and are as dedicated to each other as they have always been. Interestingly, though, their devotion is far from cloying and obsessive, with both of them keeping their own goals in sight and putting survival ahead of romantic sappiness, which honestly, I like to see in fiction because to me that seems far more realistic than the still-trendy obsessive consuming love seen in a lot of YA fiction. Their relationship is believable, and so I can easily get behind it. There’s no love triangle nonsense, there’s no fights over stupid things that causes an irreparable rift in their relationship in an attempt to create tension. There’s enough tension in their lives. They do argue, sometimes over small things and sometimes over large things, but never does it feel like Mullin is trying to create drama for the sake of letting it temporarily carry the story when nothing else is happening. The world they live in has more than enough to advance the story without pointless drama.

Mullin continues to pull no punches when it comes to the more brutal sides of post-eruption life. There is plenty of death, though not quite as much as in previous novels. Instead, there seems to be a greater emphasis on the price paid for continuing to survive. Characters lose limbs, become very ill, are forces to make unpleasant alliances in order to keep from losing what they’ve managed to build for themselves. Food supplies are unstable, nearby towns are refusing to provide help or do what’s needed to keep themselves safe, and Alex finds himself thrown into the middle of things more often than not, going from a boy who fought to keep himself alive to a reluctant politician as he works to convince others to do what needs to be done.

Sunrise isn’t quite as action-packed as the previous two novels in the series, though I won’t lie; there’s still a good amount of action and plenty of tense and bloody moments to keep readers turning the pages. Within Sunrise, as with the rest of the series, lie examples of both the best and the worst of humanity, people who sacrifice themselves for the sake of others, and people who sacrifice others for the same of themselves. It’s clear why Mullin and his books have won awards; Alex’s voice is so lifelike that it’s at times easy to forget that you’re just reading a book, not watching everything unfold from right behind his eyes. But even the slower sections of the novel are still interesting, alternating between dialogue-heavy political and emergency discussions, to descriptions of just how Alex and his friends and family are making do with little and jury-rigging things to make their lives better. It’s not a how-to manual for post-apocalyptic survival, but it has a lot of creative and interesting information that makes me want to praise the author for doing some good research and planning.

The entire Ashfall series is a bit of a departure from my normal reading material. It could be considered speculative, since it deals with an apocalypse scenario and the aftermath thereof, but lacks many other hallmarks of speculative fiction (notably the supernatural element that’s very common in such works). Still, it’s a worthwhile journey with interesting characters who show a good amount of growth as the series progresses. It’s an impressive and mature YA series, from edge-of-your-seat introduction to satisfying conclusion, and it leaves my hands highly recommended.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Ashen Winter, by Mike Mullin

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Publication date – October 10, 2012

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.)

Ebook deal – Ashfall, by Mike Mullin

  To celebrate his second book, Ashen Winter, being released soon, Mike Mullin currently has the Kindle edition of his first book, Ashfall, on sale on for only $1.99, saving you almost $9 on the regular price. Why should you take advantage of this deal? Well, if you’re looking for an apocalyptic YA novel that doesn’t flinch away from humanity’s inhumane acts while still providing a story of hope and recovery, then this is definitely a book you’ll enjoy. (More details can be found in my review.)

Ashfall, by Mike Mullin

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Author’s website
Publication date – October 11, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Many visitors to Yellowstone National Park don’t realize that the boiling hot springs and spraying geysers are caused by an underlying supervolcano. It has erupted three times in the last 2.1 million years, and it will erupt again, changing the Earth forever.

Fifteen-year-old Alex is home alone when the supervolcano erupts. His town collapses into a nightmare of darkness, ash, and violence, forcing him to flee. He begins a harrowing trek in search of his parents and sister, who were visiting relatives 140 miles away.

Along the way, Alex struggles through a landscape transformed by more than a foot of ash. The disaster brings out the best and worst in people desperate for food, clean water, and shelter. When an escaped convict injures Alex, he searches for a sheltered place where he can wait—to heal or to die. Instead, he finds Darla. Together, they fight to achieve a nearly impossible goal: surviving the supervolcano.

Thoughts: It’s not easy to do post-apocalyptic settings as well as some people think. Coming up with a reason why the world’s in chaos is the simple part. Figuring out all the tiny ramifications of how it would affect people is difficult, and it’s so easy to misstep, to make errors that you don’t even know are errors.

And I have this to say about Ashfall: I found no errors. It’s incredibly obvious that Mullin did his homework when it comes to his story of the aftermath of a supervolcanic eruption in the United States. I don’t just mean the way people are bound to panic, to hurt others, to act stupid and selfish and for society to fall apart on itself. I’m referring to the way Mullin obviously consulted wilderness survival guides and picked up details about the actual effects of hypothermia on humans, or the abilities of people who’ve been on starvation diets for weeks. The little details were all there, and while they may not all have been strictly necessary, they all come together to add depth and richness to the story that set it apart from many other post-apocalyptic books I’ve read in the past.

The story centres around Alex, whose parents and sister left him at home while they went to visit family in another state. In their absense, the volcano at Yellowstone erupts, causing massive and widespread effects across the United States. Extreme changes in weather patterns, crop devastation, water supplies sinking, and people panicking everywhere. Through this, Alex feels the need to be reunited with his family, and sets out into the newly chaotic wild world around him, hoping to get to where they were going so they could all be together again.

Along the way, in the tradition of many wanderers, he meets many people, from the kindly farm couple who give him food and shelter, to the escaped convict who tries to kill him. He also meets Darla, whom he begins a relationship with in what I thought was a very realistic fashion given the circumstances. Love didn’t blind them to the harshness of life, it didn’t consume their every waking thought, they didn’t spend entire chapters angsting over it, but their affection ran deep and that showed quite well. They’re a couple I can really get invested in because their couple-hood doesn’t dominate every aspect of their lives.

In many ways, this is not an easy book to read. There’s violent and bloody death, both in self-defense and psychopathic rage. People die of exposure and starvation. Women get raped. Girls in the refugee camp prostitute themselves to soldiers for extra food.

But the uncomfortable aspects of the story are what go a long way to making it all so realistic, and for that, I can commend Mullin for his superb execution of a tale of the darker side of humanity in chaos. He peppers that ugly darkness with a generous helping of hope and optimism, of Alex’s unfailing determination to keep going on to reunite with his family, of love that can blossom in the hardest of circumstances. Mullin has shown his colours as a fantastic storyteller, and as a book for older teens, this one leaves my hands very highly recommended.

(Provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley)