Alex is a video-game playing, ninja black belt kid from Cedar Falls Iowa. He also happens to be home alone when a mysterious object crushes into his house, setting it on fire and almost killing him. Ash is raining from the sky, the sound is deafening, and nobody knows what is going on. Nothing works – thick ash has clogged the roads, motors, and electrical devices. No cell phones, no water, no food. Within days looters are on the prowl. Safety and comfort are a distant memory.
In desperation, Alex decides to find his family at his uncle’s farm. Heading overland with a backpack and cross-country skis, Alex is alone.
He stops at a few farmhouses seeking food and water. Some welcome him in, others encourage him to keep moving with a well-placed shotgun. Half-starved he runs into Target, a beast-like man roasting meat over an open fire. Target offers him a share if he promises to team up with him. Unfortunately Target is a raging sociopath and when Alex tries to leave, they fight leaving Alex bloody and Target down an eye.
Alex flees through the woods until he stumbles, weak and bloody, into the farm of Mrs. Edmunds and her daughter Darla. They care for him while Darla digs for corn (hidden under feet of ash), invents a bike-powered corn-grinder, breeds rabbits, and generally establishes herself as “the ideal partner for the apocalypse.” Eventually Target tracks down the Edmund’s farm leaving Mrs. Edmunds dead and the farm burnt to the ground. With no viable alternatives, Darla and Alex join up to continue the harrowing journey through desolation and looters to find Alex’s family. And hopefully safety. And possibly a clean pair of underpants.
Ashfall is a YA novel that uses the idea of a “supervolcano” (unlike Sharnados these actually exist) to quickly turn reality into a shadowy distopian world. The dangers – starvation, dehydration, violent men, are tangible.
But ultimately Ashfall fails to emotionally connect. Alex and Darla fall in love (no spoiler alert is necessary, it’s a YA book with a male/female protagonist, of course they do) but you never feel their romantic connection. Both suffer immense personal trauma but there is no emotional consequence to those experiences. There is no emotional journey for these two, they’re essentially talented robots traveling the ashy landscape.
Darla and Alex also seem so well-suited to post-apocalyptic survival that it deserves a bit of an eye roll. The author has a black-belt in taekwondo, which comes out in the lovingly depicted battle scenes where Alex repeatedly takes down larger, stronger, and more experienced protagonists. Darla is a teen McGyver who can make a solar battery with some chewing gum and a stick.
So unlike other distopian YA novels (Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Knife of Never Letting Go) that feature rich characters and dramatic situations that compel you to keep reading, Ashfall was just interesting enough to keep me from bailing early.
Parenting Note: This qualifies as an “older” YA novel due to the inclusion of violence, rape, and mild sexual content.