Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

Ashes by Ilsa J. BickAshes by Ilsa J. Bick
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Series: Ashes #1
Published by Audible, Inc. on 9/6/11
Genres: Post Apocalyptic, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B
Narration: B

Alex is a terminally ill seventeen year-old girl who has ditched school, left the home of her aunt in Illinois, and headed for the woods of upper Michigan in an effort to make peace with her past and what’s left of her future. Her trek to spread the ashes of her parents at Lake Superior is interrupted: first by her encounter with an old man and his eight year-old granddaughter and then by an initially unexplained event that kills the old man and briefly disables Alex and young Ellie. As Alex and Ellie struggle to reach help they encounter Tom, a soldier in his early twenties who is on leave from a tour in Afghanistan. As the trio begins to make their way towards civilization they determine that the event that changed their lives was an electromagnetic pulse attack. That attack and the resultant nuclear explosions have irrevocably altered not just their world, but also the people in it.

Despite some issues with the structure of the story and the discovery that the narration didn’t align with my preferred style, I enjoyed this audiobook quite a bit. The descriptions, while not lyrical, are evocative and avoid the common mash of overused similes and descriptors. Ms. Brick has done an excellent job creating events and characters that, although neatly skirting probability, certainly contain the seeds of possibility.  Either her life-experience or solid research makes for a story where the possible is made more believable by a solid grounding in facts.

As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that the EMP was deadly to most people between the ages of (roughly) thirteen and sixty and the teenagers/younger people who did survive have been turned into almost-mindless creatures ruled by hunger and violence.  As we see the “brain zapped” in action, there is a decent amount of gore in the descriptions. For me, it came across as horrible but not true horror. It is described in such a way that it feels more like flipping by The Learning Channel and seeing a surgery in progress: gross, but in a “yep, that’s what it would look like” kind of way rather than scenes written to squeeze the maximum amount of “ewwww!” from events. Additional information is worked into the story in a very organic manner that explains the why, how, and who of those who survived the EMP and I enjoyed the gradual development of the hypotheses.  Alex also finds herself changed but, refreshingly, she doesn’t suddenly develop superpowers. Instead, she gradually comes to understand what is different about her while leaving a lot of room for her new skills to bloom into a larger part of the story.

The characters are well-developed and very human in their mix of positive and negative characteristics and actions. The dangers that Alex, Tom, and Ellie encounter drive action scenes that are well written and very effective at ratcheting up the tension for the reader. In addition to physical drama, Alex’s emotional struggles make her more sympathetic than I might otherwise find her. When Alex reaches the community of Rule, the divide between old and young generates some interesting dynamics. Generation Z (which in this book may as well stand for zombie) is almost completely reviled by the older generation that she encounters on the road. They are viewed as a universally dangerous group and because of her age, Alex faces as much threat from the unchanged survivors as she does from her altered peers. When the community of Rule takes her in, Alex is torn between the seductive lure of safety and a rebellion against the level of control the community and its elders want to exert over her. The cult-like aspects of the community and Alex’s increasing awareness of how she has been changed by the EMP are just two aspects of the story that I would have liked to see developed further in this book.

That segues into what bothered me structurally about the story. Alex and her struggle to navigate through a changed world makes up the core structure of the story but there are several well-developed characters and the start of some very interesting ideas that travel along with her and add their own framework to the plot. There were several times it felt like that framework was stripped away and we once again start with Alex and have to add additional structural components. It was as if the story line that was driving the book forward was shifted off course by new events. Then, rather than moving on to a new section that continues to build tension in anticipation of returning to the previous plot threads with a resolution, new situations and new information is introduced. These new plot lines start building, needing their own resolution, and I lost the narrative tension for resolving the first issue. Then the plot would fracture again. The fact that the tension immediately starts to build again for the new situation is a mark of effective writing but after a while, plotus interruptus becomes frustrating.

I don’t mean to imply that the story is episodic, only that there are quite a few storylines that are unresolved and a lot of really great ideas that aren’t expounded upon. The ending is, in fact, a huge cliff-hanger. Overall, that gave me a certain sense of dissatisfaction although I also have the feeling that if the author can bring it all together and finish building on what is present in the first book of this trilogy, the whole will be significantly more than the sum of its parts (and the first part is pretty darn good).

I find myself very conflicted in rating the narration. Objectively I can recognize the tremendous amount of skill Katherine Kellgren brings to the story. Fully voiced characters, a pleasing voice overall, a nice cadence to the delivery, and the ability to voice the tension that permeates the story were all strong aspects of her delivery but it is that last aspect that tripped me up. There’s room in my listening tastes for narration other than subtle but I found Ms. Kellgren’s to contain a theatrical element that didn’t suit me. Theatrical in this case isn’t meant as a pejorative but simply that it seemed better suited to a stage or radio drama than an intimate listening experience coming through my earphones. During dramatic scenes there was tremendous energy poured into the delivery and I could hear how the building inhalations and exhalations had to be worked into the lines, leaving me expecting a vocal explosion at the end. Representative of that is the last vocally dramatic scene in the story that suddenly sounds muted and actually has a waveform that looks like it had to be artificially modified to lower the decibel level.

My analysis is more a reflection of my personal tastes in narration because I certainly don’t regret going with the audio version over the text version. Consider it my recommendation, if your listening tastes are similar to mine, to listen to this audiobook in the car or at least via speakers rather than earphones. If your preferences aren’t similar, I think the narration will probably wow you.

I found this to be a very good post-apocalyptic story with narration that, for most listeners, will significantly enhance the story. I’d argue that the category of Young Adult applied to this book is done more because of the age of the protagonist than the writing or content.