The Plot: 15-year-old Alex is home alone for the weekend when the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone erupts, covering his Iowa home in ash. As the disastrous ashfall continues for hours and then days, knocking out power, water and communications, Alex begins a dangerous journey to find his family. He hopes they are safe on his uncle’s farm in Illinois, only a 3-hour drive away, but traveling that short distance takes weeks as the rules and conveniences of modern life continue to deteriorate. Along the way Alex meets escaped criminals, religious fanatics, and a mechanical whiz named Darla who becomes his partner in more ways than one.
The Author: Mike Mullin has worked at Kids Ink Children’s Bookstore for twenty years. Ashfall is his first published novel. He is also a black belt in Songahm Taekwondo.
Why It’s Awesome: The most fun (fun? scary?) thing about Ashfall is its plausibility–Mullin obviously put in his research on volcanoes, supervolcanoes, and the way we’ve dealt with past natural disasters (the FEMA response in the novel has definite shades of Katrina to it). The climactic events are scientifically authentic, and the reactions of the characters are as varied as one would expect from a real set of people.
The book is fast-paced and plot-driven, an excellent post-apocalypse survival story. Alex and Darla are well-suited to the material: Alex’s only real survival skill is the Taekwondo he learned at a suburban center, and Darla’s talents with mechanics and animals are believable of a girl raised on a farm. The two of them form a believable partnership, which grows into romance as they learn to rely on each other. In a fun twist, Darla is much more mechanically inclined and less squeamish than Alex, and despite the gender difference they are very evenly matched as far as physical strength.
Mullin doesn’t gloss over the nastier aspects of a post-apocalypse life (Where do you pee in a makeshift igloo? What happens to your pet when you run out of food for yourself?) but he doesn’t milk them for drama, either. The result is an engagingly realistic vision of a truly possible future.
Why It’s Not Awesome: If no one had told me this was a first novel, I probably could have guessed it from the text. The book’s one real problem is that it occasionally tries too hard; you can feel the effort behind the writing. This isn’t a constant issue, but it rears its head from time to time, especially at the end of a chapter, when things like exclamation marks creep in, as if the text is trying to say “Look! A cliffhanger!”
Alex’s characterization could have used a little more work as well. He’s the POV character, so we don’t get the clues his facial expressions or physical changes might have given us. We have to rely on his internal monologue, which occasionally veers into teenage slang territory or becomes heavy-handed. Mullin wants us to see that Alex’s experiences transform him from a lazy, somewhat truculent teenager into a true adult, but Alex hands us that conclusion almost word for word in a paragraph near the end, when ideally we would have come to realize it on our own.
The Final Judgment: A gripping first novel. I’ll be excited to read the sequel.