Ashes of the Earth
This review kicks of a trio of post-apocalyptic reviews. Sometimes I just get a craving for post-apocalyptic fiction. Unfortunately, and this no slight to two excellent novels, two of said post-apocalyptic novels are zombie novels. In truth I prefer my apocalypses zombie free but when beggers can’t always be choosers. Anyway the novel I’m about review isn’t at all zombie related. Ashes of the Earth by Eliot Pattison is subtitled a Post-Apocalyptic Mystery and it falls squarely into the mystery genre. Pattison previous authored two historical mysteries set in colonial America, Eye of the Raven and Bone Rattler, and I get the distinct impression that those to earlier novels certainly help inform Ashes of the Earth.
Ashes of the Earth takes place after war has left America (and presumable the rest of the planet) a husk of its former self and focuses on a struggling community called Carthage. The story follows the embittered and dissident founding father of Carthage, Hadrian Boone, as he attempts to solve the murder of his mentor. Nuclear and biological weapons employed in the past have left even later generations suffering and Carthage long ago exiled these unwanted to shantytown long ago and is amongst these exiles, and even further, that Hadrian’s journey takes him.
As I mentioned Pattison’s familiarity with colonial fiction definitely helps the novel here as the struggling community of Carthage bears a lot of similarities to the hard-scrabble communities of the Colonial era. Of course one of the special aspects of Ashes of the Earth are the remnants of old society that clash with the new in this post-apocalyptic world. I was extremely fascinated with the children’s suicide cult. While many of the adults of Carthage have lost their faith the remnants of that faith, combined with the remnants of the past helped bring about the very bizarre religion amongst the children. It is both horrific and strangely logical that the children of Carthage view artifacts of the past as things from the afterlife. It is a mindset and belief that could easily be fostered by the resentment and loss from adults as well as some other (spoiler heavy) conditions that I won’t discuss.
It was a smart move on Pattison’s part to set his novel a generation or two removed from the global apocalypse. He is extraordinarily adept at giving Carthage and its people a sense of history beyond what has been lost. That sense of the past really lends the novel a sense of place that, despite its future setting, really grounds the novel in reality. Pattison never goes into the full details of Carthage’s founding focusing only on those events which bear the most influence on the plot. Boone’s embittered disposition is in the forefront right out of the gate and I appreciated that Pattison slowly reveals the layers of who Boone used to be over the course of the mystery.
The novel features some wonderfully realized characters. Boone in particularly never feels less than real with a not-so-subtle anger that belies is idealistic nature; a contradiction that feels completely human. The orphaned boy Dax was a great foil for Boone. The two are of a similar nature as the child acts oftentimes more like an adult and his strange post-apocalyptic patois lending him (and the other children of Carthage) a real sense the Other. Like Boone the exile Sarah exhibits a surprising degree of optimism but as the novel progresses revealing an inner core of equal parts determination and sorrow. I felt that the young policewoman Jori could have been better fleshed out and, if the novel weren’t entirely from Boone’s perspective, would have been served by providing an alternative perspective unbiased by experience with the way the world used to be. Pattison also deftly handles several minor characters from Native American hunters, to hardened ship captains, to stoic bodyguards the minor characters of Ashes of the Earth manage to shine in their own distinct ways.
As a science fiction fan I certainly would have liked a little more detail about the way the world ends, would have love to have seen the ruined landscape explored a little more but given that the novel is thematically focused about creating something new informed by the past, but free of its mistakes, the lack of exploration makes sense. Furthermore, Pattison has crafted one of the more intricate and fascinating mysteries that I’ve ever seen. Details and revelations are revealed at slow and measured pace and the importance is handled with the same level of importance as Boone’s introspection and philosophical observations. In addition to being a great mystery Ashes of the Earth is a novel about loss and recovery, about realizing that even absent of the past human nature does not change.