Itâ€™s always nice to see someone taking a fresh approach to the zombie apocalypse. In the young-adult novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth, first-time author Carrie Ryanâ€™s tactic is setting her story so long after the rise of the dead that no one living remembers a time before â€“ indeed, many people doubt there ever was a time before. In this genuinely post-apocalyptic world, society has reverted to a simpler way of life, much like the modern-day Amish. No lights, no phones, no motorcars â€“ just farming, fence-mending (to keep those pesky walking dead out) and lots and lots of religion, courtesy of the Sisterhood. The sisters of the Sisterhood run things with an iron fist, maintaining order and security in a draconian mannerâ€”albeit an arguably justified one.
It is this world that our young lead, Mary, lives in. And after her father and mother both fall to the zombies, she find herself unwillingly forced into the Sisterhood. There she discovers something strange â€“ an outsider has come to her village, but is hidden by the Sisters. Later this outsider becomes a zombie â€“ a special one, extra ferocious and capable of running. As this unfolds, Maryâ€™s life becomes complicated by love, obligation, her natural curiosity and need to break free of the stifling constraints imposed upon her by life in the village. And she gets her chance to break free when all hell breaks loose and the Unconsecrated, as Ryan calls her zombies, flood the village, forcing Mary to flee with her would-be lover, her betrothed, her best friend, her brother, his wife, a young boy and a dog. And in classic zombie-tale fashion, this group begins shrinking almost immediately and what limited safety they find along the way turns out to be not as safe as it seemsâ€¦
Ryan shows some skill in the crucial areas of characterization and plotting. She crafts a bunch of well-realized, believable characters (especially Mary) and sets them loose in a nicely plotted, page-turning story. Of course, I did have some minor quibbles. The first-person, present-tense style (as in â€œIâ€™m walking to the door, I feel its rough surface on my skinâ€) felt a little odd to me and was somewhat distracting, especially at first. The pacing also felt a bit off, almost as if it had initially been planned to be a longer, deeper novel but had to be cut short for some reason â€“ perhaps a looming deadline? To be clear, it moves along at a brisk clip, but it feels like the first half or two-thirds was building to more than the final bit paid off. In particular, there were a couple of intriguing passages hinting that the Sisterhood had a much better idea of what was going on than they revealed and suggesting something of an explanation for the outsider/super-zombie character, but they werenâ€™t followed up on, which was a bit disappointing. Iâ€™d have preferred a bit more of that and a bit less of the love quadrangle between Mary, her best friend and the brothers, but hey, Iâ€™m not a teen girl either.
Apart from those issues â€“ and be sure, they are minor issues â€“ this is a novel thatâ€™s easy to recommend, especially to younger readers (12 to 16, say) but enjoyable by all who love zombies. Between her fresh setting, solid characters and compelling plot, Ryan has crafted an excellent debut novel. If she chooses to stay in this world for her future works, thereâ€™s plenty of room left to explore. The ending is practically begging for a sequel and I would read it without hesitation. If she moved on to some other subject â€“ Yeti or robots, say — Iâ€™d still be inclined to pick her next book up â€“ sheâ€™s a good writer that seems to be headed toward being a great one.