From the blurb:
Under the bubbling hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone National Park is a supervolcano. Most people don't know it's there. The caldera is so large that it can only be seen from a plane or satellite. It just could be overdue for an eruption, which would change the landscape and climate of our planet. For Alex, being left alone for the weekend means having the freedom to play computer games and hang out with his friends without hassle from his mother. Then the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts, plunging his hometown into a nightmare of darkness, ash, and violence. Alex begins a harrowing trek to seach for his family and finds help in Darla, a travel partner he meets along the way. Together they must find the strength and skills to survive and outlast an epic disaster.
This book. THIS BOOK!
I was hooked from the first chapter and unable to put it down for any length of time. Mike Mullin delivers an amazing debut novel, well-researched, really well written and absolutely believable.
The book begins with sixteen year old Alex being a typical teenage boy - sullen, not wanting to spend time with his family, rather staying home alone in their house in Iowa than go on a visit to his uncle's farm a two hours' drive away. He's home alone when the super volcano commonly known as Yellowstone erupts and turns his life literally upside down. Once he gets out of his house, he realizes that nothing will ever be the same. Scared yet driven by his need to find his family, he sets out on the long journey across the ash, with not much more than his backpack and his father's skis. And his wits.
I was impressed with the author's ability to realistically depict a teenage boy's inner thoughts when faced with utter disaster. He has to grow up virtually overnight, facing grim circumstances and making hard choices. The characterization was spot on. Alex is not a super hero, and there are plenty of awkward moments as well as moments where he is scared and frustrated. It's his grim determination that impressed me the most - he never gives up.
While on his journey, Alex is faced with the worst and the best of humanity.
Darla, the female MC, eighteen and Alex's eventual love interest, is kick ass. She's smart as a whip, knows her way around mechanical things, thinks on her feet and doesn't shy from knocking Alex on the head when he's being stupid.
What struck me the most is how realistically this book describes the disaster and the ensuing madness. The land is covered by ash. FEMA sets up survivor camps, but outsources the supervision of the camps. The company that's been tasked with this has corrupt employees who gather the survivors and basically lock them up, with little food, unhygienic accommodations, just to earn more money. There are definite undertones during those scenes that led me to believe the author doesn't think too highly of FEMA, and memories of Katrina's aftermath came to mind.
People die. Others live. Mike Mullin takes no prisoners when depicting the reality of humanity. Disasters such as this usually produce two kinds of people - the ones who will selflessly help a fellow man, and the ones who will maim and kill without remorse. In this book, Alex and Darla are faced with both. They are faced with crises that grown men would have a hard time overcoming, and still they persevere. Neither of them always handles every crisis perfectly. The author lets them fail, lets them cry and despair until they find the will to move forward. It's this realistic depiction that made this book a five star read.
This is not a book for younger teenagers. Not only does it contain two intimate scenes, but there is also death and gore that is described rather accurately. And yet, these scenes only serve to make this post-apocalyptic novel more realistic.
The relationship between Darla and Alex also develops slowly. First, she only sees him as another mouth to feed on the limited supplies they have. Over time, they become closer and eventually are forced to leave her house and go together to find his uncle's farm. Over time, Alex falls for Darla, and she eventually falls for him as well. The circumstances drive them closer than they might have gotten otherwise.
The writing is crisp and precise, which I expected from a male author, and Alex's voice rings true. The book is written from his point of view only, and his inner thoughts were at times funny and at times made me tear up, because he's really still just a kid. Mike Mullin also did his research, not only into the super volcano and what an eruption would look like, but also into automobiles, FEMA camps, landscape for the area in which the book takes place, guns, etc. - it's all very realistic and believable.
The character growth, primarily for Alex, was also exceptionally well done. He learns to do what needs to be done to ensure his survival, as well as Darla's, but never loses sight of his humanity. He perseveres without making other suffer if he can help it, yet doesn't shy back from killing those who seek to harm him or Darla.
I highly recommend this book. I couldn't stop reading until I had finished, and this story will stay with me for a long time to come.
Please give this the chance it deserves.