Out Of The Ashes
William W. Johnstone’s The Ashes series (not to be confused with the cricket series) is one of the worst long-running series ever. I might even be bold and say that it’s the single worst chronological series made by a mainstream commercial publisher that I’ve read. Even if it isn’t, it’s certainly up there. They, along with the The Big One novels, were some of my first exposure to “bad books” as I knew them.
In a fashion strangely typical of me, I read the later Ashes first, finding them via the ancient 2000s method of buying them in a bookstore. Somehow these monstrosities were successful enough to reissue after their initial publication date. So a curious thought came to me. Was there a chance, in spite of what I’d heard and read in other reviews, that the early Ashes might have been good, or at least not terribly bad? Could they have started as second-rate but readable Survivalist knockoffs and then devolved into the rambling political screeds and one-sided, toothless battles I knew them as? Did they have merit?
Well, now I’ve finished Out Of The Ashes, and I can confidently give an answer to that question. N-O-P-E.
- The book starts with an introduction to paperback pulp author (hmm….) and former supermerc Ben Raines nobly turning down a chance to participate in a coup attempt against the EVIL LIBERAL GUN GRABBERS.
- Then the General Jack Ripper-style conspirators, in an overlong “first act”, trigger the apocalyptic nuclear war everyone who saw the covers of the book knew would happen. It’s like if someone watched Dr. Strangelove and read the opening of a Larry Bond novel at the same time while glugging down bottle after bottle of whiskey, and then wrote something down while drunk.
- Then Raines wakes up and experiences arguably the lamest and tamest Easy Mode Apocalypse ever, where he has no problem finding supplies (including weapons in a convenient arsenal) and bedding one beautiful woman after another while he battles and effortlessly kills all sorts of stereotypes. After this, any attempt to truly be considered post-apocalyptic stops. For what seems like the rest of the series.
- Then the political tirades start getting even worse, with Raines starting his authoritarian Huey Long-on-steroids paradise utopia where unemployment is 0% and everyone is educated “properly”, and no one can be truly rich. But it’s not communism or socialism because of guns. Yes, he uses that exact argument in the book.
- Then the strawman journalists, in a scene that seemed, and probably was longer than any of the actual battles, are taken to the Tri-State Glorious Peoples Democratic Republic Utopia for another exposition.
- Then the federal EVIL LIBERAL GUN GRABBERS, in a scene that dials up the gore and squickiness (but not in a good way), slaughter the “paradise” and force Raines to return to guerilla warfare, setting up the rest of the series (don’t worry, he’ll be back commanding unrealistically huge armies and ruling Utopia 2.0 soon enough).
- Finally, some of the Tri-States survivors and allies kill the EVIL LIBERAL GUN GRABBERS. The end, but not of the series, with its 34 (!) more installments.
So what are the issues that plague this book and its XXXIV sequels? If I had to choose only three (and there are a lot more than those), I’d say these.
- Johnstone cannot write action well, and he cannot pace well, the two things cheap thriller writers need to be able to do. Pretty much every single fight amounts simply to “and then Raines shot them”, they almost never last more than a few paragraphs, and the tone of the book is such that removes the “well, they’re realistically short” justification. There are a very small number of exceptions, but it’s not worth digging through 34 books of slop when even a mediocre cheap thriller leaves Johnstone in its dust.
- The story frequently goes from “product of its time” to “ugly and creepy” in terms of offensiveness. The prose doesn’t help one bit, with it sounding clunky, creepy and oddly juvenile.
- Johnstone is not consistent or coherent in the slightest with his political tirades. Not only that, but they make the main character look pathetic, like a grumbler instead of Jerry Ahern’s stoic badass John Rourke.
This book, and this series, is one of the worst of all time.