Ashes of the Earth by Eliot Pattison

Eliot Pattison is the winner of an Edgar Award and finalist for the Gold Dagger for his book The Skull Mantra.  His most recent one is titled Ashes of the Earth: A Mystery of Post-Apocalyptic America. Usually, I would get the hell away from a title like that. But Pattison’s good reputation and the fact that I’d read some of his earlier novels were enough to convince me to give it a try. I’m glad I did.

The story takes place in Carthage, a colony of 12,000 survivors near the Great Lakes, thirty years after a chemical war has devastated most of the world while killing the majority of its population.

The main character, Hadrian Boone, is a former founder of this colony. He is now disillusioned and embittered by how everything is managed. He spends most of his time in bouts of depression and heavy drinking and ends up in prison-stints of various lengths for rebelling against the government. Then one day his best friend, Jonah Beck, a scientist/librarian/keeper of records, and thus one of the most important men of Carthage, is found dead. Beck apparently hung himself from a rafter in his office at the library.

While haunted by ghosts of people and events of his past, Boone decides to investigate his friend’s death, convinced that he was murdered. Looking for the killer or killers, Boone follows clues that will soon reveal much more than he could have imagined; it’s a path towards something that might be too complex and powerful for him to face alone. Something that could decide the fate of Carthage and possibly even destroy it.

The colony is a work-in-progress –we can imagine others scattered all over the planet—run by an authoritarian government with a man named Lucas Buchanan at the top. Buchanan is also one of the former founders of the colony but his and Boone’s paths have diverged drastically at some point. One of the reasons they did was the decision to force into exile all those still contagious and too sick or weak to be of any help in rebuilding the colony. Boone and Beck secretly made trips to that rejected settlement to bring medecine, food and other supplies.

Vestiges of the past are kept away from Carthage as much as possible to help maintain the focus towards the future. A government slogan in the town square underlines this: “We have not lost our history. We are free of history.” 

How can you go forward if you keep looking back, right? That is what lies at the center of the dilemma between survivors who remember the former world: what do we do with our past? Do we use it to build our future or do we try to erase and forget it entirely. But if you wander outside of the colony, you find the former world and its technology everywhere. As Jonah once told Hadrian: “The Dark Ages had to come before there could be a Renaissance.” But the government sends ‘scavengers’ on secret missions to find ‘salvage’, or remnants of the old world.

While drug trafficking and other criminal activities are rampant, conflicts arise between and within generations:  on one side, some want to forget the past mostly because of the painful memories about loved ones who died, and on the other side some want to try to get back to their previous lives, or at least whatever they can retrieve from it. Among those who never knew the old world, there are some who’d prefer to focus on building a brand-new world versus those, mostly kids, who are attracted by the beautiful world of the past they’ve heard about. Spreading rumours mention it still exists but you can only access it by committing suicide; many kids are convinced that by hanging themselves they will fall asleep and then wake up on the other side. Who's bringing them toys and objects in perfect condition from the old world? Who would gain from the deaths of the kids of Carthage? What did Jonah Beck knew that got him killed?

Eliot Pattison has created an intricate and engrossing mystery plot within an intelligent and realistic depiction of a possible future for our planet if ever a chemical war or any other apocalyptic event might befall us. As the author explains in the afterword: “Endings of worlds have occurred throughout human history. Some have been abrupt, (…). Some have been gradual, (…). But none have encompassed all of humankind. (…). This novel is certainly not meant to be a prophecy, but implicit in its backdrop are predictions about the state of technology and science after such universal destruction.”

With complex characters having to make difficult choices and take quick decisions that can decide their fate or that of others, Ashes of the Earth is filled with enough twists and surprises to keep readers engrossed until the suspenseful ending. It is a world sometimes as bleak as the one in McCarthy’s The Road but with Pattison’s personal view and interpretation. It is filled with hope while also sending a serious warning of what the future might hold for humankind.

A departure from his two previous series and the Tibetan world, Pattison here has found a rich territory to exploit: that of the colony of Carthage and the many interesting characters worth visiting again. If this novel is the start of a new series for Eliot Pattison, please bring me the next one.

August 2011
(read from finished HC copy)

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