When The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan came out in 2009, I was so pumped. I thought this was a kick ass zombie YA novel I could get behind. The premise is fascinating. I can’t fault Ryan for the idea. This is a novel about life post zombie apocalypse. A few hundred people live in a colony surrounded by heavy duty fences which have kept them safe from “the Unconsecrated” for multiple generations.
This colony has reverted back to farming and gathering. There are no cars, no guns, no telephones or radios or even electricity. The central building in the colony is the cathedral and the Sisters live there and control the colony through the words of the Scripture – which may or may not be the Bible. Guardians scout the perimeters, secure the fence, and kill the zombies. The people who live in this colony believe they are the last people on earth. Until one night, someone from Outside shows up at the gates and hijinx ensue.
This sounds really awesome. And if this was the story Ryan planned on telling, it would have been. Enter our protagonist: Mary. She is probably the single most selfish, stupid main character I have ever spent 300 pages with. I wonder if readers were supposed to hate her. I understand flaws. All good characters have them. But Mary was nothing but. There are zombies at the gates, Mary’s mother has just been bitten, her brother kicks her out of the house (for reasons that are never made entirely clear other than he’s mad about their mom), the entire village survives by the skin of its teeth, and all she cares about is the fact that Harry, and not his brother Travis, has asked her to go to the Harvest Festival.
Oh. Em. Gee.
Granted, the Harvest Festival is the first step in a series of events that end in marriage, but are you kidding me? No matter what happens to Mary and those around her, all she thinks about is Travis. And since we’re in Mary’s head, all we read about is Travis and the feel of his lips and skin and how he smells and how he smiles in the sunlight.
What about the mother fucking zombies?!
Okay, okay, I understand – this has to appeal to the emo teenage girl crowd. But when the zombies break into the colony (as you know they had to) and eat Mary’s friends and family in front of her, all she can do is stand there like a mongoloid and cry because Travis didn’t rescue her from marriage to his brother. And is Harry some abusive alcoholic? No. He just isn’t Travis. That is the extent of Harry’s personality. Ryan should have just called him Not Travis, because he has no other defining personality trait. Travis himself has no personality other than Mary’s Crush. Occasionally Harry and Travis have dialogue, but they never actually say much of anything. When Travis talks, Marry is too busy watching his lips move and when Harry talks, Mary is too busy being pissed that he’s not Travis.
So… the turning point of the narrative comes when an outsider enters the colony and the zombies break down the fence. I thought that maybe things would get better with more action. Maybe Mary would be forced into becoming interesting, or at least likeable. But no. I won’t spoil all of the plot, but I about lost it when Mary and Travis bust into this abandoned house and discover a baby zombie in a crib. Mary pitches it out a second story window before she and Travis either make out or have sex – this is never made clear.
Ryan has so many flashes of interesting backstory that she could have gone with. She could have even fleshed out this novel a little more. Maybe with enough world building and explanation of the culture of this colony, Mary’s head would be a more interesting place. But since Mary doesn’t care, the readers never get this vital information. Mary cares about Travis and so he is all we get.
Ryan also glosses over a lot of important stuff. Her zombies don’t make a lot of sense. Most of them are slow but occasionally there’s a fast one. Zombies can wear themselves down over time, so after multiple generations, I have to wonder where all these zombies are coming from, especially if these people think they are all that is left of humanity.
Ryan never goes into detail about just how many zombies are out there, stalking this colony. Is it a horde? A few dozen? They press against the fence and this is all we know. The Sisters control the colony but we never get much info about them. We never find out why they keep everyone so ignorant or how they came to be or what exactly the Scripture is. Their methods of population building seem counterproductive. Mary mentions that one of their jobs is to keep bloodlines separate, but this is in passing and never discussed again.
The logistical and character problems with The Forest of Hands and Teeth gave me a headache. I couldn’t get through a chapter without poking holes in Ryan’s shoddy world building. Ultimately, I feel like this world was simply created as a vehicle to showcase some teen angst. Oh yeah, and zombies. I dunno.
Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I started reading the second book, The Dead Tossed Waves. I may hate the books, but these titles are badass. In this book, we follow Mary’s daughter Gabry, who lives in a much more modern and settled colony that is still attacked by zombies from both land and sea. She lives in the light house with Mary and can’t stop thinking about her best friend’s brother, Catcher, and the feel of his lips and skin, and how he smells, and how he smiles in the sunlight…
Oh, for fuck’s sake! Again?! There is this whole culture to explore and all we get is the look in Catcher’s eye before he kisses Gabry. Jeebus Christ. Gabry is almost as selfish and dumb as her mother. I made it 150 pages in before I had to say “no more.” Life is too short to read awful books full of sulky teenagers and cliché phraseology throughout.
With this in mind, I offer you Geektresses a challenge. At C2E2, I was given an Advanced Reader’s Copy of the third book in this series, The Dark and Hollow Places. I can’t bring myself to read it. I will send this ARC to one of you. I will send it to the first person who emails me with a compelling reason for wanting this abuse. Did you cheat on a test? Run over a puppy? Kick a baby in the head? Tell me why you deserve this atrocity and I will plop it in the mail ASAP.
Be forewarned: this is not suitable for women who are pregnant, may become pregnant, or nursing. May cause internal bleeding, ingrown toenails, and tapeworm. Have at it.
[Editor's Note: Here's a tip it may suck... I couldn't find any decent fan art for it on Deviant Art. ~BK]