Review: Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin

Ashfall Trilogy, Book Two
by Mike Mullin
Coming October 16, 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1933718750
Find it on AmazonB&NGoodreads
Read the first two chapters here 

Ten months had passed since I’d last seen the sun.

The rich blue of that final August sky was fading from my memory.

In the six months since the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano, Alex and Darla have been staying with Alex’s relatives, trying to cope with the new reality of the primitive world so vividly portrayed in ASHFALL, the first book in this trilogy. Alex and Darla decide they can wait no longer and must retrace their journey into Iowa to find and bring back Alex’s parents to the tenuous safety of Illinois. But the landscape they cross is even more perilous than before, with life-and-death battles for food and power between the remaining communities, and horrifying acts of desperation. When the unthinkable happens, Alex must find new reserves of strength and determination to survive.

ASHEN WINTER resumes where ASHFALL left off, with breakneck pace and plenty of heart-stopping moments.

"A violent, desperate adventure in a chaotic, post-disaster world." --Kirkus Reviews 

IB TEEN Reviews ASHEN WINTER: !!Warning, this review contains mild spoilers!!

Initially it was a shock to see the cover reveal for ASHEN WINTER. My mind started spinning with all the implications of the two hands desperately trying to reach each other while being pulled apart. Feeling a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach, I grew increasingly afraid of what lay in store. For weeks I could literally not bring myself to read it for I was sure it was going to break my heart. Eventually that anxiety reached its critical mass, and I had a real gut check moment. I asked myself what did I believe in more; Would Mike Mullin do anything to any of his characters and was no one safe? Or that Alex could withstand and overcome anything to keep his loved ones safe? I decided that even if it hurt, I would trust in Alex. Honestly dear reader, the book exceeded all my impossibly high expectations. Although I must warn that after having read ASHEN WINTER, you need to be afraid. Once you’ve learned the definition of flenser, it will be seared into your memory forever.

It’s only been ten months since the Yellowstone supervolcano eruption, and six months from the end of ASHFALL. Conditions are worsening as the onset of a new ice age has begun. Fans of THE WALKING DEAD will recognize that similar to Hershel’s farm, the mini utopia of Uncle Paul’s farm in ASHEN WINTER is a complete illusion. This illusion is quickly shattered. There was never anywhere to hide and the relative safety they’d enjoyed only meant that the enemy hadn’t reached them yet. In a heartbeat hard work, careful dreams and hopeful plans are shattered. Savage raiders set upon the farm setting off a chain of events that threaten to tear away everything Alex holds dear. Each heartbeat brings the danger closer, turns up the tension, and will test Alex and Darla to their very limits. 

As they set off on their quest to discover the fate of Alex’s parents, we see how quickly humanity has devolved into its primal nature. This is a new world where humans turn against one another not only for advantage, but also for sustenance. It’s a place where a young girl, like the character of Alyssa, trades on her looks to keep herself and her autistic brother alive. Having suffered abuse and indignities, while living off the carnage the gangs of flensers subsist from, she sees Alex as her savior. Alyssa sees in him a strong, determined protector with a kind heart; a young man she can love and be loved by, hopefully on the same stratospheric scale as Alex loves Darla. 

The love between Alex and Darla is not only one of tenderness and passion but also of maturity, respect, and that of two people who together make a whole. Alex and Darla are a real team and they have faith in each other. Together they find it within themselves to be bigger than their circumstances, and to do extraordinary things when it is demanded of them. They find hope in the bleakness of their circumstances. They find warmth and comfort with one another even in the bitter cold. It is a stunning connection that gives the reader a radiant light in the bleakest of landscapes. 

Last time when Alex and Darla were on the road their world was desperate, dark, dry, stinking, and ash choked. Dangers came from the primal instinct to survive, the paranoia, starvation, and the FEMA contractor Black Lake. This time the incessant freezing cold, deep snow, unavailability of food, safety, and shelter are all intensified as gangs of cannibals grow more powerful. The smoldering skeleton remains of homes are silent witnesses to the stupefying ravages perpetrated by these Flensers in their macabre means for survival. The ASHFALL trilogy gives its readers the priceless experience having to stop and brace yourself for a second before you keep reading. 

Your instinct as a reader to keep your beloved characters safe from harm will leave you wanting to yell many times at the book, “Don’t help that person! Save yourselves!” But what kind of person, never mind what kind of hero, would that make Alex? How could anyone justify the necessity of abandoning others to certain and brutal death while maintaining that they’re the “good guy”? While Alex’s impulse to help maybe naïve it is that innate goodness that makes his fight worthwhile. A person needs to have a certain level of compassion for their fellow man, or else the world as we know it would be completely gone. Survival isn’t just about what decisions will immediately impact the person next to you. Readers should never mistake compassion for weakness. While Alex is sometimes making decisions that can be seen as soft hearted, Darla is making the decision to stay with him and support him. She is anything but passive. No one is forcing Darla to have faith in the young man she loves and respects. Especially when that respect was hard won and not given lightly, Alex deserves it.

What I love about these characters is that not only do they feel flesh and blood real; you are watch as their moral alignments change. Mullin is using the external world to change their value systems. The brutal environment is stripping each character of their humanity, each trial Alex overcomes adds a new layer of steel. ASHEN WINTER is a story of transformation where we see what becomes of our world and what becomes of us when we are tested. A story that offers a fierce vision of a new ice age set in a post-apocalypse. The absolute lawlessness of the backdrop is like a punch in the chest. The constant potential for danger and death fuels the reader’s urgency to find out what happens next. The brutal imagery offered might numb the reader to the real impact of the unspeakable carnage on the page if not for the savage beauty of the struggle to survive. The tactile description will immerse you into the stunningly cinematic world Mike Mullin as created. 

In ASHFALL I saw Alex change from a typical teenage boy into a fierce and capable young man. In ASHEN WINTER that same young man is forced to come to grips with the fact that not only is his youth gone but the new world he lives in is still changing. He’s matured beyond his years as a result of having made hard decisions and dealt with their consequences. The events of ASHEN WINTER are critical story building experiences that make Alex and Darla’s characters grow. It opens their eyes to the fact that things outside of their little farm are quickly spiraling out of control and that nothing will change unless they contribute to turning back the tide of a terrible madness that is becoming law in this new landscape. Alex has kept his moral center in the face of a humanity that is losing itself and becoming increasingly depraved. Will we see Alex ascend to his true potential in book three? I believe in Alex, you should too. 
My playlist for Ashfall and Ashen Winter- so far anyway:

  • Radioactive- Imagine Dragons
  • Wherever I May Roam- Metallica
  • One- Metallica
  • Harvester of Sorrow- Metallica
  • Sad But True- Metallica
  • Hurt- Nine Inch Nails

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