Books for Young People: Ashfall Trilogy, by Mike Mullin
Author: Kyla Sterling
The Ashfall trilogy – released in 2011, 2012, and 2014 – is yet another entry in the post-apocalyptic-survival genre for teens. I almost passed on the series for that reason alone. We’re up to our ears in high school love triangles versus everything the dystopian government can throw at them, and I really didn’t want to get lost in it again.
Lucky for me, I didn’t skip it.
Ashfall is a little bit different from the average YA (Young Adult) offering. First of all, the apocalypse isn’t caused by a third or fourth world war, or climate change, or anything man could control. Instead, the supervolcano under Yellowstone blows, and Mike Mullin does his best to follow what scientists posit will happen when that day comes. From rocks ejected at supersonic speeds, to the noise of the eruption itself, to the effects that much ash would have on humans, animals, and crops, the setting is pretty realistic.
The characters are also realistic – there’s your average high school hero, who rises to the occasion and thinks his way out of the problems he faces. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it blows up in his face. There are your well-meaning authority figures, who try their best to help keep “their” people safe, even if that means crossing over into tyrant territory. There are your looters, your refugees, your corrupt officials, and your “guess what’s for dinner after the plants and animals have died” villains. The only unrealistic characters really come out in the third book, and while their motivations may be valid, their reactions seem quite over the top, in times crossing the line into downright stupid and dangerous.
The trilogy also gets major, major points (I can’t tell you how many points. All of the points.) for NOT having a stupid love triangle. All of the characters are too wrapped up in surviving the natural disaster to worry too much about who really loves who. Besides, it’s clear after the first book who the alpha couple is, and there’s no going back. When a third wheel comes along and tries to make a play, the offer is politely declined and never addressed again. It gets a few more points for having actual stakes – people die, sometimes messily. The lead characters aren’t invincible. Mistakes have tangible costs, both short and long-term. It’s not on the level of George R. R. Martin, but you still never get complacent.
As far as actually reading the books? They’re not bad. The series has some flaws, but also a lot of strengths. Mullin tried hard not to go off the deep end with his “what if” disaster, and stuck to the actual science of a volcanic explosion the size of Yellowstone and the consequences of that much ash on the climate and environment – with a few mentions of the implications for the rest of the world if the US completely withdraws from the global economy due to the disaster. Sure, it’s kind of a worst-case scenario, but the ash cloud and following volcanic winter were going to suck no matter what. His science is pretty good throughout, from surviving hypothermia to scurvy and wound care to agriculture and engineering. The biggest flaws I can think of are some of the characters - some of them are very one-dimensional in their motivations, and others just go drama llama for terrible reasons. Even so, I’d definitely recommend the trilogy to anybody interested in the survival adventure genre, teen or adult.
Important Things to Know: As I mentioned earlier, people die in the books. Sometimes it’s messy and painful. Sometimes it’s onscreen. Sometimes it’s messy, painful, and onscreen. There are some really messed up people in the apocalypse, and it feels like you meet them all. There are references to rape and sex trafficking, though there are no graphic depictions. There’s also consensual sex, again with no graphic details. Cannibalism is a theme throughout. (Your heroes never participate though!) The animals don’t survive. The first book begins when the main character is 15, and ends when he’s about 19. That’s definitely the age-range of the youngest people I’d recommend the series to.
Overall, though, I enjoyed the series. I’m glad I decided to go for it, and I hope a few of you will, too!