Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin

I really dug Mike Mullin’s Ashfall, more than I thought I would. Survival stories aren’t usually my thing, but Mulllin turned me into a fan. The sequel, Ashen Winter, picks up where the first left off: Alex and Darla are at Alex’s aunt and uncle’s place, a passable refuge from the changed world. But Alex’s parents had set off to find him, and now Alex wants to find them and bring them back, reuniting the family. Darla decides to accompany him, and they’re off.

It’s a really simple premise, if a little stupid on Alex’s and Darla’s parts. Maybe it’s just because I knew I was reading a survival story, but two teenagers setting off into this post-volcano world on their own is a recipe for disaster. Let me tell you just a few things this new world has in store for our intrepid couple: cannibals (called “flensers”), rapists, kidnappers, never-ending winter, a desecrated landscape, an incompetent government response, and mercenaries. But both Alex and Darla are headstrong characters, so it’s not entirely unbelievable they would have made this decision, and their family wouldn’t have been able to stop them if they tried.

Ashen Winter is quite similar to Ashfall in a lot of ways: it’s a chronicle of how Alex and Darla survive, heavy on action. Unfortunately, I liked it significantly less due to the fact that it’s chock full of sexual abuse. A very large plot point (actually, the main plot point) focuses on the real and potential sexual assault women and girls undergo in this new world. Sexual assault was a part of the world pre-volcano, as it’s a part of our own world, but it’s practically a way of life for a much larger segment of the survivors post-volcano. Most of the book is spent trying to infiltrate a group of gangsters who steal and/or buy women and girls to use as sex slaves.

Some people don’t have a problem reading about this type of thing in fiction. Some people would say it’s realistic. I’m just tired of reading about it. There’s a particularly icky point near the end of the book that made me feel very uncomfortable as a reader, and I wished I hadn’t read that section at all. I finished this book before reading this thought-provoking post (about dystopias, not post-apocalyptic stories, but there is common ground), which really crystallized my feelings about this book. I want to read about resourceful teens surviving terrible cold, hunger, fatigue, even violence. I like those kinds of survival stories.

Maybe it’s because I frequently read to escape, and I know I won’t be going hungry anytime soon, that I have a shelter that keeps me warm, that my family is healthy and safe, that I won’t be eaten by cannibals, so I don’t mind putting myself in the shoes of a character who has to fight against those things. I do, however, fear sexual assault. I don’t like to read about it.

I guess that was just a really long warning that Ashen Winter focuses much more on this topic than its predecessor, which touched on it only slightly. It’s still well-written, exciting, and interesting. But I didn’t like most of it.

As always, your mileage may vary.

Review copy received from the publisher. Ashen Winter is available now.

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  1. says

    I really enjoyed Ashfall. I have been looking forward to Ashen Winter. I agree with you it will be difficult to read about the sexual assault but maybe it is necessary.

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