Book Review: Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin
Ashen Winter is the second book in Mike Mullin’s natural disaster trilogy, following the author’s powerful debut novel, Ashfall. SPOILER ALERT: This review will, by necessity, contain mild spoilers for book one. Stop here if you just don’t want to know!
In Ashfall, teen protagonist Alex is forced to grow up in a hurry when life as he knows it comes to an end following a massive supervolcano eruption which causes widespread environmental catastrophe. At the beginning of Ashen Winter, ten months have passed since the eruption. Alex and girlfriend Darla are living at his uncle’s farm in Illinois, struggling to survive the freezing temperatures brought on by the ash-induced climate change. Alex is determined to find his parents, who returned to Iowa to find Alex at the same time that Alex was fleeing Iowa to reunite with his family. Alex and Darla, bound by a soul-deep love, leave on their quest early in Ashen Winter, and immediately encounter one disastrous turn of events after another. The two escape death, barely and not without injury, time and time again, as they face physical danger, loss of food and supplies, freezing conditions, corrupt government contractors, and bands of cannibals who prey upon anyone they can capture.
Alex shoulders tremendous burdens and feels a crushing sense of guilt and responsibility as each carefully laid plan turns ruinous. Alex and Darla are separated early on, and Alex faces one obstacle after another as his quest to find his parents turns into a rescue mission: Find Darla before she is killed or brutalized by the rampaging gangs of armed thugs who prey upon the weak and alone. Alex is not without resources, however. In the first book, we saw Alex repeatedly struggle to do what he could to help others, even when doing so meant his own survival might be jeopardized. In Ashen Winter, we see a kind of pay-off for Alex’s earlier choices, as the people he’s helped or rescued along the way become valuable allies.
An ongoing motif throughout both books is the meaning of adulthood. By Ashen Winter, Alex is sixteen, and the adults he meets along the way continue to try to control him and make decisions in what they think is his best interest. Repeatedly, well-meaning adults discount his absolute commitment to Darla and try to dissuade him from his rescue mission. Alex, despite his age, must prove to himself and to those around him, over and over again, that he is strong, capable, and yes, in love — not a fleeting, teen romance, but a connection and a commitment that means that he must find Darla, no matter the danger or the very real possibility that she’s already dead. Alex’s opponents are not only the gangs and corrupt officials who threaten him, but also the adults he trusts and loves. All of them stand in his way; all of them underestimate him; to all of them, he has to stand up and proclaim that he is an adult to be reckoned with.
Ashen Winter is like paper crack. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger of sorts. Here’s a random sampling of a few last lines from various chapters:
“What really caught my attention was the machine pistol he had trained on Darla.”
“A line of men popped into view one by one, their heads and shoulders above the low log gate. Every one of them was pointing a rifle at us.”
“Then I heard an engine rumble behind us.”
“The bike fell sidways, trapping Darla’s leg and dragging her ina rush toward the deadly, roiling water at the base of the dam.”
“I slipped — and suddenly I was dangling, my feet clawing futilely at the air.”
“When the body quits shivering, it’s preparing to die.”
I could provide many more examples, but you get the idea. No wonder I’ve been bleary-eyed all week — with ending sentences like these, it was simply impossible to put this book down at the end of a chapter and call it a night.
In other reviews, I’ve referred to 2nd books in trilogies as middle children — not the first, leading the way, not the last, to be cherished and savored. The middle book has to keep the momentum going, provide a link between beginning and end, but not actually allow the story to move too close to a conclusion. When not done well, a reader is left feeling like he or she is treading water, waiting for the action to resume in the final book. I’m happy to report that Ashen Winter is a terrific example of a middle book that accomplishes its mission and then some. It not only moves the story forward and leaves the reader hungry for the final installment, but it contains a compelling plot, filled with twists and turns, memorable characters, action aplenty, and convincing character development. In other words, it’s a good book in its own right, which is really quite rare for a middle book.
Of course, it would be foolish to pick up Ashen Winter without having read the first book and expect to understand what’s going on. But if you want an action story with heart, pick up Ashfall and dive in. I dare you to stop after just one book.