The publisher summary of this novel had me at electro-magnetic pulse. Finally, a post-apocalyptic YA novel with an EMP! Honestly, if I was an evil genius, that's definitely what I would unleash upon the unsuspecting populace. Imagine the chaos! The destroyed infrastructure! Civilization would be booted back to the Middle Ages.
Indeed, while 17-year-old Alex is on a long September hike in the Michigan wilderness to finally spread her parents' ashes, an EMP (Alex calls it "the zap") detonates, killing all people except for the young and the elderly and destroying virtually all electronic devices. After Alex strikes an uneasy truce with 8-year-old Ellie whose grandfather died during the zap, the two of them head off in search of assistance and shelter with Ellie's dog Mina in tow. Armed with Alex's wilderness survival expertise, Ellie's fishing skills, and Mina's protection from wolves and other wildlife, survival looks doable.
Neither they nor I were expecting the zombies.
It turns out that the zap somehow turned some of the surviving teenagers into unnaturally fast cannibalistic monsters, and Alex is now waiting to turn into one herself. Instead, her sense of smell seems to be hyper-sensitive and she wonders if that has to do with the inoperable brain tumor she has recently refused further treatment for. Nonetheless, surviving in the increasingly colder forest while avoiding zombies and packs of wild dogs are keeping Alex and Ellie busy, and with winter fast approaching their plans - and potential partnerships with other survivors - literally become matters of life or death.
Admittedly, I was a bit dubious when the zombies came into play. As a rule, I feel that a relatively (sometimes deceptively) simple plot with well-executed and complex characters can make for a very satisfying read, certainly more than a complex plot with simple characters. I feared that the zombie teenagers would be one plot element too much and would take over the story and push it into the realm of unbelievability. However, Bick didn't allow that to happen: the zombie angle was not overused, and in fact the most frightening characters in the book were - appropriately - other survivors.
Bick's main characters are pleasingly complex. Alex is fiesty and brave but also soft-hearted and very clever. Ellie was so well executed that there were times I felt like wringing her neck as much as Alex did, although I did feel as though she often seemed older than her very young age due to her frequent use of sarcasm. Later characters were also far more than one-dimensional, and I very much look forward to their development in future books.
Yes, Ashes is the first book in a trilogy, and as such has one hell of a cliffhanger ending. (My summary covers perhaps the first 20% of the book, so a great deal happens that I didn't specifically touch on so as not to spoil anything - it's a thriller after all!) I don't know how long I'll need to wait for the second instalment, but I certainly hope it arrives sooner rather than later.
**Electronic review copy provided by publisher via NetGalley.