(Image from Barnes & Noble)
(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Ashen Winter, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, Ashfall. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)
It's been ten months since the supervolcano at Yellowstone National Park blew its top, smothering the nation in a thick layer of ash. After a long, dangerous trek from his home in Iowa to his uncle's farm in Illinois, 16-year-old Alex Halprin is finally safe. He's not living in luxury, by any means, but he's found a permanent place to live, he's helping to grow the kale that's keeping people alive, he's surrounded by family members—his aunt, uncle, cousin and younger sister, Rebecca—and he's sharing a bedroom with his girlfriend, 18-year-old Darla Edmunds. If it weren't for the fact that his world's turned into a post-apocalyptic nightmare and his parents are lost in it somewhere, life wouldn't be all that bad.
But the world has gone to pot and his mom and dad are still unaccounted for and Alex won't rest until he finds them. He doesn't want to leave the only family he's sure he still has, but he has to know what's happened to his parents. So, Alex and Darla gear up for another hike across the Midwest. They're headed back to Cedar Falls, Iowa, across 140 miles of barren terrain. Every mile will be a battle against hunger, thirst, snow, fatigue and, of course, ragtag groups of dangerous, desperate Midwesterners. Letting their guard down for even a second can mean death or worse—being eaten by cannibals. It will take every last ounce of their courage, cunning and craftiness to make it to their destination alive.
Like Ashfall before it, Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin (available October 16, 2012) tells a fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled survival story. In fact, it rarely stops to take a breath. It's all action, all the time. Character development doesn't suffer for it, though, as Alex and Darla continue to get fleshed out, making them more sympathetic and compelling with every page. Ashen Winter does take the whole cannibal thing to a new level, which got so nauseating at times I considered putting the book down altogether. I couldn't, though, not without knowing what became of Alex and Darla. If you have a weak stomach, you might want to steer clear, because once you get into this series, there really is no getting out. Like I've said before, it's not the most original YA dystopian or the most brilliant, but there's something about it that keeps me reading—even when my grossed-out stomach is screaming, "Stop! Please, for the love of all that's holy, make it stop!" Ah, cannibals. They're just so compelling that way.
(Readalikes: Ashfall by Mike Mullin; also The Road by Cormac McCarthy; The Last Survivors trilogy [Life As We Knew It; The Dead & the Gone; The World We Live In] by Susan Beth Pfeffer; and a little like the Gone series [Gone; Hunger; Lies; Plague; Fear] by Michael Grant)
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 (possibly R) for violence/gore, sexual content and language (no F-bombs)