McIsaac, Meaghan. The Boys of Fire and Ash. New York: Delacorte Press, 2015. 978-0385744454 327 p. $16.99 Gr. 5-12
Urgle lives with his “brothers” in the Ikkuma, a hot volcanic ash pit surrounded by wilderness and deadly creatures. Each boy was abandoned as a baby (they have a hatred of mothers as a result) and is given a “big brother” to teach him, until each one has his own “leaving” from the pit. Urgle is watchful of his annoying little brother Cubby, but due to his own lack of hunting skills he largely believes his nickname “Useless.” No brother has ever returned after leaving, until one day a man crashes into their pit, chased by awful creatures. Just after the brothers save his life and realize “Blaze” was once a brother, too, the creatures attack again and take two little brothers. One of them is Cubby which leads Urgle out of the pit, with two friends and Blaze as a guide.
The Ikkuma have a code of looking out for one another, which not all boys do well. Thus, Urgle’s devotion to his brother is admirable, and the minimal fleshing-out of characters’ motivations and fears is interesting. Much here seems uneven—a decent concept that has not been thoroughly developed to answer nagging questions, characters with potential but no shown growth, and language that seems tacked on. The underlying creation myth that leads the mothers to abandon their sons is both confusing and difficult to believe. For instance, avoiding men, how do these women get pregnant or sustain their society? Isolated for years from society (so that they have never seen a female, or anyone older than sixteen), how do the Ikkuma boys have no translation/dialect issues? Also, Blaze’s reason for returning is never explained. The story tiptoes around but avoids delving deeply into most problematic issues (religion, profanity, abuse, sex), making it an easy recommendation for younger readers. Urgle is a loyal underdog to root for, and younger fans of dystopian literature will enjoy this stand-alone title, previously self-published in Britain as Urgle.
Yes, it’s another dystopian book. This one nicely features mainly male characters and action scenes throughout. Some thought has been given to quirkiness of the created world: “By Rawley!” the boys say when cursing; and Urgle’s first view of older adults is that their skin as “melted” (i.e. wrinkled). But, McIsaac fails to convince on Urgle’s abilities, even when other characters look to him as someone special. Toward the end, Urgle’s “I was sure of this” moments contradict themselves, leaving the reader at the mercy of the author’s whim to make the character fit the moment. For anyone aware of Tolkien’s rich understanding of language, the names of people and places gratingly show no sense of place or culture; they are simply tacked on: Cubby, Lussit, Benedon, Blaze, Krepin, Cheeks, Baublenotts, Farka, on and on. This book can fill a void for readers who have run out of dystopian or adventure fiction and keep begging for more. Otherwise, look to series like: The Maze Runner, Septimus Heap, Ranger’s Apprentice, or titles by Margaret Peterson Haddix or Neal Shusterman.
Dystopian, Fantasy Melissa Scott, Shenango High School