Group Discussion and Review: Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin

Sometimes, a regular review just isn’t right for a book. Sometimes, we are so excited about a book that we need to share our enthusiasm with others. Welcome to Badass Book Reviews discusses Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin. This is a spoiler-free discussion, so feel free to read without covering your eyes.




[box color=grey]Synopsis from Goodreads: It’s been over 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 series. It’s also been six months of waiting for Alex’s parents to return from Iowa. 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. When the unthinkable happens, Alex must find new reserves of strength and determination to survive.[/box]

Darla’s inventions/contraptions/etc. – Discuss

AH: Darla is definitely someone you want on your side in the event of a volcanic apocalypse. The girl has serious mechanical engineering talents. A method to heat greenhouses without electricity, a grindstone, Bikezilla, and more. Darla rules.
D.G.: I love Darla but don’t you think at times she seems unbelievably knowledgeable? I know she worked with machines with her Dad and all but I’d like to know something she can’t do with machines or a bit more background on how she learned all that. I know she’s a sort of MacGyver but she’s so young that it seems weird that she accumulated all that knowledge.
AH:  I love that! Darla is MacGyver! All she needs is some duct tape.
Regina:  DG I agree. I do love Darla and I love how Mike Mullin has created such a great female character.  She is everything I would want to be, that I would want my daughters to be and that i would want for my son as a partner.  Alex’s love for her is so pure.  I grew up in the area that Darla is from and I totally get the resourceful farm girl type, but yeah — I find it unbelievable (though … she is surprisingly like my husband — he would invent that stuff and does). However, I do think it adds to the story and helps move the story along.  I am not sure how everything that needs to happen, would happen if it weren’t for Darla.

Darla – Fierce Warrior, EMT, and Snarky Commentator

AH: The girl is absolutely fearless. When faced with a group of bandits kidnapping Alex’s sister and cousin, Darla goes for help. Help in the form of a shotgun. And she can shoot. Darla is also very good at patching people up, too.

Volcanic Winter – Snow in June

AH:  The aftermath of this disaster is unbelievable. Areas inaccessible, freezing temperatures, virtually no food supply. How can you keep warm when there is barely any vegetation available?
D.G.:  I’m from the Caribbean and I have to readjust to cold weather every year. Just reading about this makes me cold – I think the author has done a great job describing how inhospitable the environment is but I confess I don’t know how anybody could survive this (remember this is told from a perspective of a person who lived the first 22 years of her life in temperatures averaging 77 degrees. 🙂
AH: – I live in a fairly cold climate. Seriously, I can’t see how people could live in that climate heating their house with fire. The weeks where we get -20C (around 0F, I think) are brutal, even when you have a home with central heating.
Regina: This past weekend we had no heat.  Our furnace was down and the part to fix it wouldn’t come in for several days.  We all (4 kids, 2 adults, 1 big hairy dog) huddled together every night (temps dropped down to 34 degrees F), I kept thinking about this book and how they handled it.  It is NOT romantic at all.
AH: As someone who lived throught the Ice Storm of 1998 with very small children and NO heat and NO power for a week, I can’t believe living through such extreme cold like they did in this book. I remember watching my kids’ lips turn blue. Definitely not romantic at all.

Societal Breakdown 

AH: Where you just as surprised as I was that some people devolved into cannibals? Flensing? Yuck!
D.G.: Nope, it doesn’t surprise me at all, specially the cannibalism. I mean, this has happened in the past…we just have to look at the Donner Party and the survivors of that Uruguayan flight. If people are desperate, they could do anything. As it is now, people are in peace because there’s enough wealth to go around so there’s no need to fight for it but if something like this were to happen I’m sure it would be everybody for themselves. My husband (who’s an economist) is afraid that all these worldwide problems with the economy will bring about WWIII because people will be desperate.

What did you think of the ways in which some communities worked together to preserve their towns?
ie – fencing made of cars, snow and ice

Regina:  It wasn’t surprising to me.  History has born it out like DG points out and other works of fiction have explored this topic, e.g. The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  I think about why I like these types of fiction and your point DG is a good one.  Isn’t it true that what Darla and Alex are going through in Ashen Winter is the reality of people in some parts of the world? Wondering where their food and water will come from? Not having a strong government to protect them? It is interesting we see it as an escape to read about when it is other people’s reality.  Another thing, disasters like this happening in former wealthy areas like the US are a little bit more fun to imagine because it is sort of like being locked in a candy store — there are so many untapped resources everywhere.

As to people working together, I hope that would happen more often.  I guess maybe where people have a history and a common interest it could happen. Being from the area where this book is set makes me wonder if towns would come together.  Mostly people are separated by distances and are used to getting places by car.  My parents spend over ½ their life in a car.  When something happens, they deal with it in their house — they themselves live several miles outside of town.  I see people holding out on their own until they can’t anymore.  I kind of think urban areas would be more likely to work together as they are used to interact with more people on a regular basis.  I see more of my neighbors now than I ever did living in the area where this book is set. But that has just been my experience — and it is also likely more an American experience too.  My husband is from a rural part of Mexico and they all live in close proximity to each other and then go out to their farms every day — whereas in the US and in the area described – farmers live separate from other farmers on their land.

FEMA and the Black River Camp

AH:  In light of the mess that was Hurricane Katrina, do you think that FEMA would have been better prepared for a disaster such as this?

D.G.: No way. I don’t think the U.S. is prepared for something of this magnitude. In general, I don’t think Americans are that well prepared for natural disasters. Can you imagine if we’d had a Tsunami like Japan?

Regina: No, it would be such a huge scale disaster.  The problem with FEMA is that it is a federal agency and states respond first to state type disasters.  And then the US used to have bases throughout the countries, those were disbanded in the 1990s and the reserves have been called up for war and are not easily deployable.  So no, we are not prepared for this.  I really like how Mullin touches on the privatization of government services.  It really isn’t FEMA manning these camps or giving out aid.  It is a company making private.  Privatization of services is common place in the US right now from privatization of prisons to soldiers.  Mullin does it in such a subtle way, so that it leads the reader to question if this is the best method to serve the public?

Side note — in the area where Alex’s uncle’s farm is are nearby nuclear power plants.  How would they be affected by the loss of power and government control?
AH – Wow. Never thought of that. You can’t just shut down a nuclear power plant. It takes months. There’s another disaster waiting to go BOOM.

AH- Were you surprised at the level of corruption at the camps? What did you think of the roles that Alex’s parents had taken on?

D.G.: I think that Alex sometimes is too good to be true but even I was shocked as his father’s transformation. I think I would have objected to his behavior too.
AH – Alex’s father was a little disappointing. I did like how the camp residents organized to keep each other safe and busy. Alex’s mother really surprised me in her leadership role.
Regina:  I touch on this above about FEMA   I am not surprised about the corruption of FEMA camps.  First, it is a corporate run camp doing it for profit.  Second, I think Mike is really posing the question — what would it be like if Americans had to live in refugee camps? Do we really understand what others in countries struck by tragedy go through?  It is horrifying to think that this is a reality for people right now.

Food Supply

AH– OMG, I had to share this. Amazon has a book called 50 Shades of Kale.
I immediately thought of this book when I saw it.
D.G.: HAHAHAHA!! That’s hysterical! I guess we should better buy this so we know different ways to cook kale after the apocalypse.
Regina:  I did think it was unbelievable that enough sun made it through the clouds to grow the kale, but hey — they needed a reason to be able to survive.  My parents are stocked in case this happened (and they do live close to Warren, IL).  I honestly don’t know who they are shopping for, but every time I head down into their basement I feel comforted.  Do you ladies eat kale?  It is actually not bad and really good for you.

Young Love

AH – I was touched when Darla and Alex proclaimed their love for each other. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Alex is only 16, he seems much older. Do you believe in young love? Do you think that Alex and Darla’s love is the real thing?
D.G.: Usually I wouldn’t think a love like this could last. But when you survive a situation like this together, it creates a bond that could tie people for a lifetime.
Regina: I don’t believe in lasting young love.  But it can be intense, I remember it well.  Man you know who was so irritating when she was belittling Alex’s feelings for Darla.

Alex’s Savior Complex

D.G.: Can you believe that Alex could stay as ‘untainted’ for so long? He seems to be always willing to help and sometimes doesn’t think things through. I really liked that in this book we saw him pay for his impulsiveness. You cannot do stupid shit all the time and expect it to work out!
AH – I couldn’t believe how injured Alex got. He was so full of holes from all of his injuries.
Regina: Haha, DG.  TSTL.  Many people paid for Alex’s impulsiveness.  His so called desire to save people is not always the best thing in this world.  I really liked how we saw the evolution (not in a good way) of people close to Alex.  Hard situations change people.

Alex is a Catch

D.G.: It cracked me up how surprised Alex was that Alyssa had her…ahem…eyes set on him. I mean, it made total sense! The volcano brought civilization back to almost a cavemen level so a nice man who can kick serious ass is a catch indeed! I’m looking forward to this part of the conflict in the last book of the trilogy. I’m sure Darla is going to be fighting women left and right.
AH- Yes, Alex definitely was a catch. Can you imagine how he went from a wiry 16 year old in the first book to a muscular, fit boy in this book?
Regina:  I wanted Alex.  Or my memory of my teenage self wanted Alex.  Or something like that. There I said it.

Women as the Hardasses

D.G.: I think in most books you would have had the women are the compassionate types while men would be the hardasses but this book has them the other way around. Men are willing to share while women just want to take care of their own and the hell with everybody else (for ex: Darla thinking Alex shares too freely, Mary Sue trying to steal from Alex, Alex’s mother not wanting to just go Warren and to hell with Darla). I think this portrayal is essentially accurate – after all, women have to take care of their children so they need to be more selfish – but what do you think?
AH – I loved the roles that women played in this book. It’s so refreshing to see strong women who are not waiting for their knight in shining armor to rescue them.
Regina:  Mike Mullin rocks.  He doesn’t rest on stereotypes.  Thank God.  It makes for such better reading.  I loved what we find out about Alex’s parents.  It makes sense that this tragedy would change people.  They were changed by their loss of Alex and by the disaster.

The Autistic Savant – Ben

AH– I really loved Ben. I think he was depicted fairly accurately and I loved his encyclopedic knowledge of all things military.
D.G.: I also liked Ben but thought it was tad convenient that Alex got a person with an expertise he needed!
AH – Convenient, but useful.
Regina:  I don’t have a lot of knowledge about autistic savants, but he is a great character — I did wonder about the realism of his knowledge.  It was funny though.

Was there ever a point in the novel where you wondered just how much more pain and injuries our main characters could take?

AH – I did suspend belief at some points. Just how many times could a character get shot, live with infection, and keep going, despite the lack of meds.
D.G. – Oh yes! I had to suspend disbelief early on, especially because Alex went without adequate rest for so long. I think I could have believed some of the things that happened if he had been well rested and/ or didn’t have so many wounds!
Regina:  It made me so thankful for anesthesia. When the apocalypse hits, we all need to hit the pharmacy and get antibiotics.  Then we need to hit the library for books on how to make our own antibiotics. On a serious note, I really liked how Alex was understanding of what Alyssa went through.  She may not have had injuries like Alex and Darla, but she obviously was tortured in a different way.  I appreciated how Mike Mullin inserted his voice to give Alyssa a break in terms of her learned behavior.

AH: Checked with the DH and he said that making antibiotics is not an option. Not easy to make outside of the right facilities.

Would You Have Left?

Regina:  I am not sure I would have left to go look for my parents.  It is freaking cold, resources are scarce, and it is clear the family at the farm is in need of labor and protection.  I appreciate that Alex went after his parents — but was it the smart thing to do? Would you have done that?
AH – Personally, I would not have allowed Alex to leave the farm if I was his uncle. It just didn’t seem like the safe thing to do. If it was me, definitely not. I’m a chicken, I’ll admit it.
D.G.: No, I wouldn’t have done it either. But maybe I would have felt differently if I was a young guy – in my experience, men are just more willing to take risks than women and they have this crazy believe that they are capable to take care of everything that comes their way. Maybe it’s an evolutionary thing (men had to hunt the beasts, women had to stay in the cave with the babies.)

So What is Next?

Regina:  How do we wait a year for the sequel? Mike Mullin do you need me to beta read?  Do you need inside info on the area?  I’m your gal!  😉
AH – Can’t wait to read the sequel! How long would it take for things to get back to “normal?”
D.G. – I don’t know how we’ll wait. Maybe hoarding antibiotics? 😉

Our questions for you, dear readers, are as follows:

  1. Have you read Ashfall yet? What did you think?
  2. How will you be getting ready for a disaster of that magnitude?
Ashen Winter releases tomorrow, October 14.

Series Reading Order:

  1. Ashfall
  2. Ashen Winter
  3. Sunrise (publication date TBA- 2013)

Rating:  ☠  ☠  ☠  ☠  ☠ 

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Comments 4

  • […] 2012: Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopia, Literary Fiction, New Series";reddit_newwindow="1"; Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin –D.G.: This is among the best second book in a trilogy I’ve ever read. […]

  • Excellent discussion! Thanks for sharing it with me. I just submitted a novelette to my publisher covering everything Darla did between when the volcano erupted and when she met Alex. Since it’s in her perspective, I get deeper into her backstory, and how she acquired her love for machines. No word on pub date yet, though. SUNRISE, the final volume, is coming along well. Still in the first draft stage, though. Thanks again for joining the blog tour!

    • Mike thank you for sharing that information! A novella from Darla’s perspective before she met Alex sounds really interesting — for so many reasons. I would love to learn more about her background and see her family and farm life pre-volcanic eruption. I am thrilled this series has gotten such a great reception as I cannot wait for Sunrise (what a great title).

      I am trying to push this series on my family and friends back home. I think they would love to see their little corner of Illinois being written about. I understand you are not from that area, but I do think you painted a really accurate picture of what the geographic area is like. Even though I don’t live there anymore (I am now in Chicago), my heart is there and I can’t even begin to express how exciting it is to see the area appear in a book that I like. 🙂

      As you can see we are just plain old huge fans of this series. I really enjoy that it is more than just fun reading. You have subtly included both moral issues and political questions. I am looking forward to sharing this book with my children as they grow up. My oldest is 13, so she is too young right now.