The third and final book for the Zombie Love Month series is The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. I was originally going to read Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry, but I spotted The Forest in my library and since I was short on time, I went for this one instead. It’s the story of a girl named Mary and her quest to escape the strict, isolated village of her youth and find the ocean, a place untouched by the curse of the Unconsecrated.
This book reminds me a bit of Gathering Blue in a way that I’m finding difficult to describe. It’s post-apocalyptic and the society Mary grows up in has very much regressed, but not in the way things traditionally go in zombie stories. This isn’t The Walking Dead or Warm Bodies, where militant groups form. The village in this novel is surrounded by fences to keep the zombies, known as the Unconsecrated, out. Within the safety of the fence, the Sisterhood governs the people with lessons from Scripture and the Guardians maintain the fence. Everyone else gets by as their told. There are specific seasonal celebrations and rituals, and that is the way it apparently has to be. The religious fervor of the town feels a little caricatured at times.
I think the reason I’m finding the setting difficult to describe is because it’s very vague in the novel. I’m imagining the village as comparable to pioneer settlements from late 19th century America, minus firearms–the village doesn’t seem to have any more modern weapons than crossbows. Ryan describes the Sisterhood pretty well, but I don’t have any idea, for example, what kind of clothes people wear (except that the women are in skirts), and I’m assuming the houses are wooden, one-story cottages, but there’s no description of them. What do people other than the Sisters and the Guardians do? I have no idea how long after the “Return” the novel takes place, or even what the “Return” really was. Was it when the zombies arrived? Were they the ones “Returning”? Had they shown up before? Or does “the Return” just refer to a mass conversion of human to zombie, since when a living person becomes a zombie it’s said they “returned”? They’re in a forest, but what’s the climate? They have seasons, so it’s at least temperate. What kind of forest? The kind of trees, the kind of soil, could indicate whether the ocean was near or far, and since that’s Mary’s end goal I think it’s relevant.
Having so little information about the surroundings didn’t exactly keep me from enjoying the read, but I would have liked a little more solid description. I ended up just visualizing the set from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.
I have no idea how old Mary is. She’s of marriageable age, but what does that mean? For late 19th century American pioneers, that could have been fifteen or sixteen years old. I do know that she’s two years past the minimum age for marriage. So is she eighteen? Or is “marriageable” eighteen, and she’s twenty now? Since this is a YA book, I assumed that she was between sixteen and eighteen, but a lot can change in those two years and her age would have been helpful for putting her emotional development into context. Sometimes she seems mature, but she is sometimes given to melodramatic moments of despair–often the same moment over and over again, actually. In some ways she’s extreme. She totally stops believing in God when her mother dies, and only later wonders if God might be different than the Sisterhood told her. She has a bit of an obsessive personality, allowing people or ideas to consume her thoughts. She seems to latch onto each new thing as though it is the one thing capable of making her happy, only to find that it’s never enough.
Mary is not exactly likable, but that being said, I enjoyed her as a narrator. I can’t say that I care too much about her, but she also didn’t really annoy me, and I did find her interesting enough to read to the end. The book is very, very centered on her. I hardly was able to get a sense of the other main characters because Mary was so focused on herself. As a reader, I’m sad that the other characters weren’t very fleshed out, but since Mary learns a lot of hard lessons, particularly about her own selfishness and egocentricity, I think the first-person narration really served that purpose.
The author left a lot of questions hanging, and while it didn’t exactly impede my enjoyment of the book, I definitely didn’t feel as pulled-in as I would have with more world-building. Though this is, theoretically, a book about zombies, it felt totally disconnected from any zombie apocalypse because I had no idea where it fell in the apocalypse timeline. This is apparently the first in a series, so perhaps all of this gets expanded, but I’d be way more interested in reading further books if there had been more establishing description in this first one. As it stands right now, I’m not intrigued enough to continue. In some ways, I think that this book takes interesting turns away from typical zombie stories, but in other ways I feel like those turns don’t 100% work. Also, lots of Things are Capitalized (the Fast One! oooo, ahhhh), which got annoying after a while. Still, this is an enjoyable enough book, and a quick read.
Rating: 3/5 stars.
Recommended for: People who commit to a whole series before they start the first book.