Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick
I’m doing research in dystopian fiction, and I used an abstract for a conference to talk to my students about finding library database sources. One of my students came up to me after class and shyly offered up the title Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick and volunteered me her copy. It was incredibly sweet, and I have learned that when students want to share something (appropriately) personal with you, you don’t turn them down. I was delighted to read her copy and share my thoughts.
So, she forgot to tell me that in addition to dystopian fiction, Bick went all-in on zombie survival. Not my jam. I spent a lot of time reading with clenched teeth and furrowed brows, as well as what my husband refers to as my disdainful badger face. It looks something like this:
What exactly made me squinty and disdainful? Well. Let’s unpack.
Alex (female) is suffering from a terminal brain tumor and has decided to spread her parents’ ashes into a fictional forest up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (trust me, I looked up the forest, and it’s not real, but the internet speculates that it might be the Porcupine Mountains. I’ve camped there, and while not really “mountains,” they are gorgeous). She encounters an older man, his beyond-bratty granddaughter, and her dead father’s dog from the Iraq/Afghanistan Wars. And then, a weird thing happens. The man drops dead, Alex discovers a pounding headache, and a whole bunch of birds drop dead and animals go crazy. Alex discovers that she can smell again, and certain young adults have started cannibalizing others. She and the girl, Ellie, team up with a former soldier to try and make it to safety, but of course, they’re thwarted.
Like I said, zombie fiction is not my thing. World War Z did not go into a lot of gory or graphic detail, so that was okay, but Bick glories in gore. There was a description of a zombie-man tearing open a dog’s ribs which had me badger-facing all over the book. And there’s a boring sub-plot with a religious compound and a completely unnecessary love triangle that had me wishing for the return of zombie gore. The end of the novel is pretty shocking, too, although it’s pretty predictable. If you like gritty zombie gore and paint-by-numbers YA dystopian fare, then this is for you. Otherwise, skip it.