Everything was going so well.. ...relatively speaking. Things were going as well as can be expected when a series of massive electromagnetic pulses has sent the world hurtling into a nuclear maelstrom. People have dropped dead on the spot. Birds have fallen from the sky. Deer have flung themselves off cliffs. And some people have turned completely, cannibalistically feral. So when I say things were going well, I mean that Bick was spinning a very compelling story. Seventeen year old Alex is hiking in the Waucamaw, with only her personal demons and her parent’s ashes for company, making a solo journey of deeply personal significance. A fellow hiker and his granddaughter happen upon Alex’s camp at the time of the “zap” (as she comes to refer to the inciting incident of the ensuing apocalypse). When the older man dies in the moment of inexplicable chaos, Alex is left with an eight-year old girl, no idea what has happened, and a whole world of horror to face. Bick’s story is gripping from the get-go, forcing her characters into horrific situations and a desperate fight for survival. As it becomes clear that not all is well with some of those who have survived, there are some truly disturbing scenes of stomach-turning gore, pierced with a sense of visceral fear. The apparent reprieve in the form of young army veteran Tom’s appearance on the scene (I call this moment the “anti-meet-cute”, you’ll know why when you read it) is momentary. The three characters band together amid the madness, finding a period of brief respite, only to be confronted with yet more terror. Ashes is refreshingly told in third person, and I don’t feel that hinders the reader's closeness to the main character. In fact, Alex as a character generally comes through loud and clear, particularly in the first half of the book, where her strength and intelligence really come to the fore. Her inner turmoil is well realised, making her a dimensional character who feels real and interesting. I had advance warning that this book takes a rather large turn, and I will openly confess right now that I was cocky. "Do your worst, Ilsa J Bick", I thought – figuratively stretching and cracking my knuckles, "throw me some curveballs, I can take it." (Because I can be annoyingly smug like that, sometimes.) The thing is, this book doesn’t really throw curveballs. Instead, it walks up behind you, clubs you violently on the back of the head, then grabs you by the ankles and starts dragging you in a direction you really don’t want go, laughing maniacally all the while. I don’t cuss that often, but please allow me to take this opportunity to say: WTF, Ashes. WTF. While there is a chapter or two roughly halfway through that essentially act as a hinge between the two sections of the book, the transition is jarring enough to make Ashes feel like it is fragmented into two different novels. On their own, these two sections work: the first as a story of white-knuckle survival and horror, the second as a claustrophobic story of entrapment, with sinister, almost cultish undertones. I actually really liked both parts of the novel, to be clear. It’s the butting of these two stories together that is hard to take – an alloy that does not entirely work. The second half of the Ashes occasionally had me figuratively kicking and screaming and generally raging against the book. At one point, our main character muses “Where was the Alex who’d grabbed the ashes and run? The one who said to Barrett, I’m calling the shots now. She sure as hell didn’t know”. Well I sure as hell didn’t know either. Where was the Alex of the first part of the book? Logical and driven and smart? I missed her and I wanted her back. It was painful to watch her fade into a dim copy of herself, loose her grip on her determination (although in a way, it made sense that she would be lulled into this state by her circumstances, and the illusion of safety). I guess I just wanted her to fight so badly, that I struggled to calmly read on as she floundered. The relationship between Tom and Alex had been developed so well in the first section – sure it was partly born out of fear and desperation – but it felt real and gradual and had my full investment. Then that carefully crafted development feels virtually undone by Tom’s absence and the arrival on the scene of another potential love interest. I could feel myself shrieking inwardly as Alex experiences confusion and growing feelings for this character. It felt too rushed, too contrived, out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the book and Alex herself, and I had to slam the book closed and walk away for a little while. (Because I am also dramatic, sometimes) In spite of this, and to my chagrin, I couldn’t stay away. Ashes does tension well, and I think the inherent creepiness of the second half actually does stand up well against the action-packed first half, even if they don’t blend particularly smoothly. I still wanted to know how things would play out. Surely there had to be a good reason for all the torturous turns the book had taken. Surely all this angst was laying the groundwork for a truly epic finale. Well, that depends on your definition of epic. If that would be: A cliffhanger so abrupt and shocking it feels like being flung out of a vehicle moving at high speed, then this your book. If not, then tough luck I’m afraid. Ashes isn’t going to be gentle with you. But that shouldn’t really come as a surprise, because for 465 pages, this book hasn’t made any pretence of tip-toeing around the reader’s feelings. It hasn’t pulled punches, it hasn’t censored the gore, it hasn’t spared the characters from grim choices and ever bleaker fates. It’s fair to say that there are elements of this book that I found frustrating. After such a strong beginning, I can’t help but feel that the book falters in places with unwelcome plot devices, foolish choices, and turns of events that feel a bit forced. However, I felt more compelled by this book than I have by some other recent mediocre post-apocalyptic offerings, and I found it hard to put down aside from those times I felt the urge to wind up and fling it at the wall, temper tantrum style, because I wasn’t getting what I wanted.. The writing is tight and sets a swift pace, dropping in mini cliffhangers and steadily cranking up the tension. Ashes certainly had my attention by the throat, even when I was railing against it. And overall, there was still so much that I liked about this book and I think it’s a strong offering in its field. So, I’m not just going to read the sequel. I’m going to pick myself up, dust myself off, limp for a while, then hunt that book down. Because I’m a fighter, Ashes, and I will be back for Round Two.