By: Mike Mullin
Under the bubbling hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone National Park is a supervolcano. Most people don’t know it’s there. The caldera is so large that it can only be seen from a plane or satellite. It just could be overdue for an eruption, which would change the landscape and climate of our planet.
For Alex, being left alone for the weekend means having the freedom to play computer games and hang out with his friends without hassle from his mother. Then the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts, plunging his hometown into a nightmare of darkness, ash, and violence. Alex begins a harrowing trek to search for his family and finds help in Darla, a travel partner he meets along the way. Together they must find the strength and skills to survive and outlast an epic disaster.
Completion: I started this book way back in high school but never got around to finishing it until now. That’s no fault of this book, mind you, but there we go. However, I will say there are reasons why the first half of this book probably didn’t compel me to finish it back in the day, but I’ll get into that more with the rest of this review.
Writing/Style: To be honest, the writing is serviceable. Nothing fancy, nothing to write home about. The first half of the book is stunted by a ton of noun-verb sentences (i.e. I ran, I took, I stood) which gets repetitive and stunts the pacing. To be fair, the second half is better written, and since this is a debut, it is makes sense that Mullin’s writing improved as he went along.
Characters: I love me some Darla. She is my fav character by far. She has personality for days and doesn’t take crap. That being said, her knowledge is a bit too survival-plot convenient at times for my taste, but I like her enough as a character to forgive that. The main character Alex, on the other hand, takes a while to love. His story arc just seemed a little too wish-fulfill-y for me with the way he is able to so effectively take down bad guys and such. Perhaps I would have bought his martial art skills a bit more if there would have been more emphasize of it in the beginning before the supervolcano erupts. However, the beginning makes it abundantly clear that the goal is to make Alex a relatable nerdy boy which is fine but does nothing to suspend my disbelief that he can not only avoid death but so easily kill multiple people.
Plot/Pacing: Again, that first half, man. Even though Alex’s introduction to Darla serves as a break in his action-packed adventure thus far in the narrative and most would say his stay with her slows down the pacing, this was when I first started becoming invested in the story and what happens to Alex.
I should also mention here that this story doesn’t shy away from gory details so the squeamish should beware. It never goes insanely graphic in my opinion, but it definitely pushes the line for YA.
World-building/Atmosphere: It is obvious Mullin did his research on supervolcanoes. The world seems real and vivid, and the premise is new (at least to me) which is part of what drew me to this book to begin with. The FEMA camp, without giving anything away, seems a bit simplistic to me, and the message a bit heavy-handed, but otherwise the world-building is well done.
Sub-genres (Romance, Humor, Mystery, etc.): Darla’s character brings much needed levity with scenes that allow for humor and character development as well as romance. Also, it is nice to see a YA novel that is not only sex positive but grapples with sexuality as a whole which is often lacking or censored in coming-of-age stories.
FINAL VERDICT: Ashfall has an interesting premise that delivers an unearthly, harrowing world quieted by ash but full of danger. What it lacks in sophisticated style it makes up for with gritty detail and character.