Cover Image: The Weight of Ashes

The Weight of Ashes

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

A young boy refuses to admit that his older brother is dead, and he and his friends go on a journey through a dangerous forest to take his brother's ashes to a woman, said to be a witch who can bring the dead back to life. The journey with his friends reminded me at times of Stephen King's Stand By Me, and at other times it reminded me of Ray Bradbury's classic Something Wicked This Way Comes. By turns heartwarming and gutwrenching, this is a story about death, denial, and ultimately the strong bonds of friendship.
Was this review helpful?
The Weight of Ashes evoked nostalgia for me, reminding me of the kid I was in the 1980s and the movies I watched then, like The Goonies or Stand by Me. Adventure waits just outside the door, and crossing your town feels like a trek of impossible obstacles.

Though the young characters in this book are finely drawn, particularly Mark as he copes with the loss of his brother, I kept being fascinated by the villain Gordon, who was layered and complicated - yet also despicable.
Was this review helpful?
I found this book a bit difficult to get through at first, but it picked up eventually. I enjoyed it, but never really felt like I connected with the story - maybe because I'm not the target demographic.
Was this review helpful?
The Weight of Ashes, set in Hogan, Georgia during the 1980s, is a literary fiction novel that would appeal to both a young adult and adult audience. Protagonist, thirteen-year-old, Mark Murphy, is on the cusp of life when he’s hit with the tragic death of his big brother, Mitch Murphy. Mark loses more than a sibling with Mitch’s death. Their father left the family at a young age and Mitch stepped in as Mark’s father figure, protector, and mentor. His mother, reeling from the loss of her son, starts to drink heavily. To make matters worse, Mark’s cousin, Gordon, the villain of the story, caused the car accident in which Mitch was killed. Mark not only wants his brother back; he also wants revenge. And he believes the answer to both of his desires may be found with the witch who lives on Spook Hill. There’s a cost to bringing Mitch back, though. And there’s no way he can make it past his mother and her boyfriend, Officer John, and his police force, or bully/psychopath, Gordon, or the perilous wilderness to get to Spook Hill, without the help of his friends, Mo, Reggie, and Dunk.

Though The Weight of Ashes tackles death, loss, and grief, Steele created a plot that feels more like an adventure story focusing on the power of friendship. Because of the tight friendships between these characters, the novel reminded me somewhat of the 1985 blockbuster movie, The Goonies, or for a more modern reference, the hit show, Stanger Things. The language, tone, and plot suggest an element of speculative fiction. It hovers on the border making the reader wonder if there’s something supernatural at hand.

The story is told in first person point-of-view from the perspective of Mark, but the other characters are well-rounded and have personalities that complement each other and the plot. The chapters are short and tend to end with cliffhangers (though not in an ostentatious way), which is probably why it reminded me of the movie and TV show I mentioned. Steele’s style is episodic; he builds one wonderful scene upon another. Yet, the story isn’t completely linear. The reader isn’t simply led down a straight path wrought with conflict. Steele’s pacing is excellent. He does a nice balancing act with flashbacks, featuring Mark’s memories of his deceased brother and their mutual love for baseball and the Atlanta Braves, which enriches Mark and Mitch’s relationship for the reader and develops very relatable and sympathetic characters.

The Weight of Ashes is a Bildungsroman, or coming of age, novel with fairytale elements where the protagonist Mark enters the woods and comes out wiser, perhaps not quite a man but with a self-awareness he didn’t have before entering the woods. Mark must confront actual obstacles—avoiding the police, Gordon, flooded creeks, dangerous animals—to accept his brother’s death. As I mentioned, he cannot do it alone, which is one of the main issues Mark comes to understand. Here’s a moment where Steele alludes to the classic novel, The Wizard of Oz: “We moved along the drive like Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow walking through the forest. About halfway, between a trio of dangling vultures, I came to a stop.” This is the scene where the teens have finally made it through the obstacles presented by the forest and arrive at the witch’s house. It echoes the journey Dorothy and friends made down the yellow brick road to meet the wizard complete with flying monkeys or in Steele’s novel, “dangling vultures.” Steele also references The Hobbit, which was huge (still is) back in the 1980s for this age group. Authors don’t randomly do shout-outs. Bilbo was an adult when he goes on his adventure, but it’s still a classic Bildungsroman novel and a fairytale as well--like The Wizard of Oz, like Steele’s, The Weight of Ashes. The fairytale structure is a classic way of telling a story; I think it works well for any age group but is particularly effective for this story and for YA readers who may be more comfortable and open to reading a tough topic in a structure they’re accustomed to reading.

Even with an adventurous plot and characters geared for a younger audience, the subject matter—grief—is quite serious and transcends all ages. Mark goes through all the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The message is the same whatever the age of the reader. You should lean on your friends and your family to help you get through the tough times, and I commend Steele for borrowing from his own experiences to help teens, young adults, and adults realize they’re not alone.

There’s a real sense of nostalgia winding throughout the novel. Remember when you were thirteen? Remember how important your crew was? Well, that’s the peer group Steele created here. If you’re an adult reader, it’ll take you back to that magical age when everything seemed like it was all about to happen. Steele simultaneously captures the character’s childishness and insecurities around entering adulthood, mentally and physically. I think the character Dunk says it best here: “We aren’t kids anymore. We’re hormonal superheroes, fighting the villainy of a sex-crazed world.” These characters are at that age where anything seems possible, and their excitability comes out in a humorous and highly entertaining way.

Readers may become wistful remembering their teenaged years reading this book; The Weight of Ashes is full of pop cultural references from the 1980s that sets the tone. Forty and fifty-something-year-old readers will recognize shows like Family Ties and Star Trek’s: The Next Generation, or Jason Vorhees from the movie Friday the 13th. You can practically hear a soundtrack playing while reading this story with all the musical references to Madonna, The Bangles, Ozzy Osbourne, and Whitesnake, just to mention a few. Music was everything in the 1980s. What you listened to dictated what group you hung out with—the jocks, the skaters, the punks, the metalheads—and this book was reminiscent of my childhood. If you genuinely want to go down memory lane, Steele created a playlist on Spotify that accompanies The Weight of Ashes. Get a copy and tune in here to listen: The Weight of Ashes Soundtrack.

Steele’s, The Weight of Ashes, comes out with a bang, more fireworks, then more fireworks, and ends with another bang. The first chapter took my breath away. And I don’t think I’ve read a more perfect ending to a novel in years. When the beginning of a book doesn’t grab you, you put it down, you never read it. You may say something like, “I just couldn’t get into it.” If the ending sucks, you never forgive the writer, and you may not ever read that author again. I won’t go down the road of Game of Thrones. Just saying…I guarantee you have the best of both worlds with The Weight of Ashes, including a middle full of surprises—tragic, scary, fun, lighthearted—that make you appreciate your friendships and even feel compassion for the bad guy at the end. Steele took a challenging topic and made it accessible for every age. Applaud, applaud.
Was this review helpful?
I wanted to like this book.  I really did.  And eventually, I could see how good it was, but I struggled at the beginning.  Some kids will also, and they'll put it down before they get to the good parts.   My struggle was two-fold.  In the beginning, with the talk about the witch, I had no idea if the book was realistic fiction (which it reads like) or fantasy.  Secondly, I wasn't convinced about the friendships between Mark, Dunk, Mo, and Reggie.  Once the story got going they made more sense, but I wanted to like them and connect with them earlier on, and I found that hard to do.

Zachary Steele deals with a hard topic here, and by the time you get to the end, it all makes sense.  But it took me a while to get there and a while to be convinced.

**Because of my lukewarm review, I'm not going to post this on social media.  I respect that writers put their hearts and souls into their work, and I recognize my opinion is just that, my own.
Was this review helpful?
Thank you Net Galley for an ARC of The Weight Of Ashes by Zachary Steele.  This novel is a grief journey and more of Mark a teenage boy for the loss of his brother.   I quickly became engrossed in the story and loved the entire book.
Was this review helpful?
The Weight of Ashes is a great YA book about a kid coming to terms with the death of his older brother.  It has great characters and a really solid plot.  I flew through the book and found the ending really satisfying.  The group traveling to find the witch's house was well thought out and super intense.  While the ending was a bit predictable the story was well written.  I look forward to seeing what the author has in store next.
Was this review helpful?
This is a lovely, gem of a book about grief and friendship. In many ways, it reminds me of Stand By Me, the film version of Stephen King's The Body -- but with a depth of emotion that is even more of a gut punch, and even more cathartic. The writing is beautiful, but it's the well-darn characters that make it work. With all sincerity, I fell in love with this book after one page, but I kept turning the other ones as fast as I could. One note: this is a book about teens, but it's not necessarily a book for teens. It's universal.
Was this review helpful?
After Mark’s brother Mitch is killed in a car accident, Mark and his friends Reggie and Mo set out to find the witch of Spook Hill to have his brother brought back to life.  I thought this book was going to be a horror book but found it to be the exact opposite.  This coming of age book is a story of grief, what grief does to a family and what it takes to overcome it and move along with your life.  This is a beautiful story that young teens and up will love reading.  There is adventure, scares and friendship.  But at the root of the story is a family trying to deal with the death of a beloved son and brother.  I look forward to more from this author.
Was this review helpful?