Ash was a novel that surprised me – a decently written dystopian with clearly much though gone into the set up and plot. It could have easily been yet another soppy romance with short sighted characters too busy with ‘cute guys’ and saving the world to feel real. But it somehow never devolved into a farce despite the use of the typical YA trope of ‘unique snowflake’ with a destiny/prophecy who must overthrow the government (here, we have two unique snowflakes). But I also can’t say that the plot device logic really makes sense upon close examination – the whole ‘destiny can be revealed at birth but mistakes can be made’ never became concrete or believable.
Story: After a plague was unleashed upon the Earth, 90% (the usual figure) of the population died. A scientist reveals that he can extract destinies at birth and by people following theirs religiously, the world order can be restored. So he creates a tiered society based upon those destinies; people who do not fulfill theirs (such as the scientist who left a door open at a virology lab and destroyed the world 39 years previous) are shot. Their reasoning: an “Event” such as the plague cannot be allowed to happen again. Madden is a purple – a privileged whose destiny is to become one of the 7 magistrates. Dax is a blank – an unpredictable entity who did not have a destiny at birth and is relegated to the lowest social rungs. Tied together through Madden’s former relationship with Dax’s older brother, both girls will soon find out that there is much more to their destinies – and that a sacrosanct system may not be so infallible as they were told.
So yes, we clearly have yet another ‘overthrow the bad/evil/misguided/dogmatic’ post apocalyptic city/government. This time, there is no evil leader though the ultimate bad guys are clearly in the government and out to protect their positions (and their childrens’ positions). There are the usual mean girls looking down on the other colors/classes and the upper class nasty current boyfriend demeaning upstanding but lower class ex boyfriend of our main character. And of course, former boyfriend is going to get in big trouble and need to be rescued by ex and little sister.
What saves the book is that the plot is layered and the characters a bit more nuanced than typical YA dystopian. Dax has a large family with two brothers playing key parts. Madden has a group of friends and associates. I think many will find the side characters more interesting than our main heroines, however. And certainly, the decisions made by our main characters don’t always feel realistic and end up more in the deus ex machina type of overwritten book. But the wealth of characterizations make the book feel bigger than it is and helps establish the world better. As well, both protagonists did feel like different people, though I had a hard time buying either ‘destiny’.
The whole predetermination of fate thing was also too nebulous. The authors straddled a line between “you can change your fate” and “your fate is set in stone.” Perhaps this was where a problem with two authors emerges – I felt like they hadn’t agreed upon which (it wasn’t about the main protagonist girls believing differently, it was a common theme dissonance on the writers’ part). As well, that a ‘fate determination’ at birth is as specific as “You will cross a street at 4:53 on 12/13” or “You will make the magistrate closest to your age laugh” is far too specific to be believable. The second one, especially, has a point only to set up a plot twist/romance and really, on its own, is silly and unbelievable. If destinies were that mundane (e.g., “you are going to step on an ant at 4:15 on 12/13” or “birds will poo on your head so you wear a hat your whole life”) why would anyone bother with them? E.g., one character whose destiny is to deliver water – he spends all day at school fetching water for schoolmates or working at a stadium delivering water bottles to live up to that destiny. But another character has a destiny to cross a street at a certain time and that’s it. It just seems so pointless (granted, the authors try to explain this randomness by saying a mundane act can set off a chain of events that change the world). All the destinies were described in a way to make plot points (deus ex machina) nebulous so a mystery could be built.
This first book has a clear arc and a typical bad guy to be conquered. But the ending also leaves a twist that promises a much wider plot for the girls to explore. I can’t say that I liked or invested in either of the main characters. Dax especially was so underwritten as to make her destiny not only nebulous but unbelievable. Madden is given more to do in her position of power (and I’m sure we’ll see the girls position in life slowly morph) but she seems to accept far too much on face value – it’s hard to take her seriously.
Realistically, this is a 3.5 star rating for me. There were complexities enough in the plot to make me appreciate the thought that went into the story. But at the same time, I couldn’t wrap my head around several of the key plot points and believability started to wane. I wish I became more invested in either of the main characters as well. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.