Title: Ashes of the Earth: A Mystery of Post-Apocalyptic America
Author: Eliot Pattison
Genre: Dystopian fiction, mystery
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Review copy from the publisher
First line: The faces of the many child suicides Hadrian Boone had cut from nooses or retrieved below cliffs never left him, filled his restless sleep, and encroached in so many waking nightmares that now, as the blond girl with the hanging rope skipped along the ridge above, he hesitated, uncertain whether she was another of the phantoms that haunted him.
It has been thirty years since global holocaust, and the village of Carthage is struggling to build a new society. Hadrian Boone, one of the original founders, has watched a village founded on the desire for a future descend into corruption, greed, and power struggles. Disillusioned and wracked with grief over the family he lost, Hadrian has become an alcoholic and frequent trouble-maker. It is only when the town’s wise man, Jonah, is murdered, that Hadrian is motivated to come out of his drunken haze and try to find the connection between Jonah’s murder, a rash of child suicides, and a shipwreck that may or may not have happened.
In many dystopian novels, the dystopia is the story. In this book, the dystopia is only the setting, but don’t let that word “only” fool you. The mystery is the story, and it exists in a dystopian future so real that I dreamed about it. The settlers of Carthage have managed to build an existence that goes back to the days before technology, and they supplement by salvaging what they can find in the ruins around them. Some people, like Hadrian and Jonah, want to preserve the past and learn from it, while others are determined to censor the literature from before the holocaust, believing that their only hope is to forget their history and look to the future.
One of the things I love most about dystopian literature is the way books become valued artifacts and reminders of the past, often reminders that some people want to suppress. Lucas Buchanan, the governor of Carthage, is one of those people. He’s a dangerous leader – the type who believes that the end justifies the means, that the survival of the village is more important than the rights and treatment of the individual citizen. He uses his police force to control the village and has no problem subverting the path of true justice, if he believes it will advance his goals.
Outside the village are the exiles, those most harmed by radiation sickness. The village council pushed them out, unwilling to deal with the illnesses and birth defects becoming rampant in the population. Hadrian, Jonah, and the village doctor, Emily, long to see a bridge built between the town and the exiles, a sharing of resources and knowledge, but Lucas has managed to place people on the council who he is able to control. Or are they controlling him?
Ashes of the Earth vividly demonstrates the fact that human nature doesn’t change. There will always be people determined to do the right thing, people who value learning and knowledge, people who show compassion and mercy to those less fortunate than themselves. And there will always be people who manipulate and twist events to their own benefit, who see others as tools to be used, who see power as something to be grasped, and believe that the weak exist to serve the strong. Those attributes are magnified in a dystopian setting, where it seems like a person’s true nature rises to the surface.
I highly recommend this book to all fans of dystopian fiction. The mystery got a little confusing at times, but all came together in the end, and the quality of writing and world-building make it a must-read addition to the genre.