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Ashfall - Mike Mullin 4.5 starsWell, colour me surprised: I kind of love this book. Let me clarify that statement. I didn’t expect to dislike it. I wouldn’t have gone to the effort of procuring it (Ashfall is not available in Australia) if I didn’t have a desire to read it. But my physical TBR pile is literally (that’s a proper “literally”, thanks very much) big enough to do me an injury (albeit a minor one) if it fell on me, and somehow Ashfall repeatedly ended up on the bottom of that stack. Something else always snagged my attention, crept up the ranks. There was always a more enticing cover and blurb elbowing ahead of Ashfall’s rather nondescript packaging (come on, it really is – unlike Ashen Winter’s, which is kick-ass). There’s just something so satisfying about stumbling upon a book that exceeds your expectations. And Ashfall spin kicked my expectations in the face. Taekwondo reference #1. At risk of sounding like a nihilist – I love apocalyptic / post-apocalyptic fiction. Because so often it’s the darkest, bleakest of stories that contain the strongest messages of hope and strength, and have the most powerful things to say about the human condition. And ultimately that’s what I loved about Ashfall. That at the core it was a very human story about survival, and what drives a person in the face of overwhelming odds. I wouldn’t necessarily call Ashfall a fast-paced book - the tension waxes and wanes throughout. However, I struggled to put it down, I was so gripped by the premise and Alex’s point of view. Mullin’s novel unfolds with the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano, and the catastrophic fury it unleashes on the United States. The speculative position that Ashfall takes in this regard is obviously open to debate. I’m no volcanologist (sadly – but it’s never too late, right?), and I have no real opinion to weigh in with as to the accuracy of the post-eruption world as Mullin presents it. What I’m more interested in the story that develops in the fallout of a natural disaster, the manner in which the author depicts the world, and the subsequent characterisation of those living in such conditions. I found Alex’s journey, both physically and internally, extremely compelling. Alex is not a particularly remarkable fifteen year old boy. He’s into taekwando, WoW, finds his younger sister a bit of brat. (Initially, I had some reservations due to the maturity and articulateness of his voice. It seemed too old. But I quickly realised that it was in keeping with his character, and was able to settle into his narration.) Yet the tenacity that Alex demonstrates, his struggle to hold onto his own life and hope for that of his family, and the ways in which he is forced to grow throughout the story are convincingly crafted. Because throughout Alex’s quest, his strengths are believably counterbalanced with his weaknesses. His physical fight to live is tied to his mental and emotional battle to cope with the gravity of his situation. And Darla. I want to start a tumblr called EffYeahDarlaEdmunds and fill it with her moments of MacGuyver-esque badassery. Not that Darla is whipping up makeshift two-seater ultralight planes from bamboo and garbage bags – not yet, at least – rather, her ingenuity feels plausible and anchored in her backstory. She’s a thorny, abrupt character, yet beneath her tough exterior she too must grapple with grief and the very real possibility of imminent death. However, the Darla-moment that truly crystallised her fist-pump-worthiness was, for me, her conversation with Alex about the prostitution occurring at the FEMA camp. Darla’s not afraid to tell it like it is, or call Alex on his mistakes. [Slight tangent: Can I please get a high-five for one of the most frank portrayals of post-apocalypse teen sex (or pre-apocalypse, for that matter) since John Marsden’s Tomorrow series? Thanks.] Ashfall is at times a brutal, bloody book. It contains scenes of shocking violence, the harsh realities of survival and the darker side of human nature. It takes the reader to deeply uncomfortable places, shows characters doing horrific things, and frankly depicts the cost of survival. Yet throughout this, the moments of loyalty, trust and safety stand out – underscoring the preciousness of human connection. For me, this is what makes Ashfall an exceptional book in its field – I cared about these characters and I believed in the relationship that developed between them. Whatever it’s basis – necessity, love, circumstance – the way in which Mullin portrays this bond is exceptionally powerful against its bleak backdrop. Final words: Speak softly. Carry a bo staff.