A terrific page-turning thriller that busts genre boundaries and, with a substrate subtly contrasting scientific and mythological world-views, sparkles with existential depth
Into the Ashes is the third book in Lee Murray’s Taine McKenna Adventure Series (Into the Sounds and Into the Mists are the two books prior). I wasn’t paying close enough attention when I started reading Into the Ashes and didn’t realize this novel was part of a series until very close to its end. I can thus quite honestly testify that this book reads very well as a stand-alone novel but this admission is also a caveat that this review does not consider the full narrative arc of the series.
Here’s the basic plot of Into the Ashes. An enormous volcano in the eastern part of New Zealand has come to life: ash and rocks are flying every which way, lava oozes, mud flows ravage, the earth cracks open. Roads are blocked. People are trapped. Panic is rising.
New Zealand Defense Force Sergeant Taine McKenna and his squad are deployed to rescue people—tourists, scientists, residents and the like—from Tongariro National Park near the catastrophic eruption. The story takes its thrilling turn when an evacuation bus from a nearby rural prison crashes. The convicts grab their opportunity to escape. An exceedingly cruel and pathological brute of a man leads these prisoners and will stop at nothing, including murder, to be free.
By this time, the volcano and associated earthquakes have wreaked such havoc on the landscape, only one route to escape the park remains. In other words, Into the Ashes presents a classic meta-plot structure—trap a bunch of wildly dissimilar people together, force them into confrontations with each other and the earth, and revel in the ensuing melee. Who will survive? Who has the skills to claw their way back to civilization? Who will be sacrificed?
In author Lee Murray’s hands, the story leaps off the page. The disparate characters wind their way across the violently trembling earth, each struggling to survive, all carrying baggage from the past. As the story unfolds, the threads of the individual journeys begin to intersect, funneling all the characters into the only path out of Tongariro and into their final redemptive battle.
It’s a thrilling book but what sets it apart from standard fare is the presentation embedded in the story of two paradigms explaining the volcanic activity: geology (or science) and the ancient myths of the Maori, the original New Zealanders. Murray provides insight into each and carefully leads the reader to understand the value—and overlap—of both.
Murray’s prose is straightforward and works exceptionally well in service to her plot. And her words glitter when describing the terrifying and beautiful natural forces at work. An example:
Like a serpent, the water was wrapping its coils around the house, it’s deadly hiss making Pringle’s hair stand on end. Already the two branches of the lahar were coming together, closing off their escape.
For a moment she watched, mesmerized by its force. The waves of the mud danced and bubbled, like a child running away from its mother and delighting in the freedom.
Murray also employs geologic jargon effectively, adding a gritty realism to the story through the words of the trapped scientists.
Scooping up a handful, Thompson examined the pebbles. “Except it’s not greenstone. These are olivine, silicate minerals called fayalite, or forsterite depending on their relative magnesium and iron content. It’s rock from the mantle that gets spewed out in volcanic eruptions.”
As I approached the end of the Into the Ashes and the love-story subplot between a scientist (Jules) and Sergeant McKenna culminated, it became clear that his love story was a key to the book’s existential integration of mythology and science.
This was always the hard part: Jules’ scientific mind needing to make sense of his [McKenna’s] spiritual connection to Temera [the volcano].
This was a minor drawback to reading the series out of order. But the upside is I now eagerly look forward to reading the first two books to catch up on this fine New Zealand adventure series.