Gollancz, 2009 (YA)
First thing to say: when I bought this, I didn’t realise that it is, in essence, a zombie novel. Second thing: I don’t much like zombies. Werewolves – cool. Elves – yup, can deal. Orcs – you’re getting a bit shaky, but I’d give them a chance. I even still rather like vampires, though this may be due to the fact that I’ve stridently avoided reading Twilight. I would never, however, intentionally pick up a book with ‘zombie’ in the title. I’m sure I’ve come across them in short stories, and enjoyed what the author did with them, but in general they’re not really my thing. Not my cup of (undead) tea. (Undead tea?? Now that’s a disturbing thought…)
So Carrie Ryan’s debut YA novel was always going to have a tough time with me when I realised just what these ‘Unconsecrated’ were. But, all that said, Ryan manages to pull off her zombie idea with some panache. Thankfully, they weren’t as boring/irritating as I expected.
Ryan’s concept is interesting enough: our protagonist, Mary, lives in an isolated village, surrounded on all sides by the title’s ‘Forest of Hands and Teeth’. The village is surrounded by chain-link fencing (this mere detail lends some intrigue from the start; when is this set, what technology is available? we ask) which serves to keep out the Unconsecrated (zombie) hordes that claw unceasingly at the barrier, hungering for human flesh. If bitten by one of these undead creatures, one becomes infected and dies – and Returns as an Unconsecrated oneself. The villagers thus have a pretty sticky situation on their hands if one of their own gets bitten: the choice is to kill them as soon as they’ve Returned (killing them for good), or if that is too unbearable, turning them loose into the Forest to slowly tear themselves to pieces on the fencing. Meanwhile, Mary spends her time wondering if there is any other life beyond the Forest, apart from the Unconsecrated, whilst everyone around her seems adamant that there isn’t, that this small village is the last human outpost. Combine this with the oppressive ‘Sisterhood’ that dictates the laws and customs of the village, keeping secrets from the other residents…
That was what first struck me about Ryan’s novel. From the very start, Mary is hurled into one horrible situation after another. Lots of doom and plenty of gloom. It certainly keeps you on edge; the story doesn’t so much reach a particular ‘moment of peril’ (though there are certainly heightened moments throughout the book) as plunge into peril from the very beginning. It certainly makes for a gripping read. But there are, unfortunately, some major flaws here as well.
Mary, for a start. OK, so she’s feisty and brave – and I guess that’s interesting in its way. But goshdarnit, does she have to be so very moody all the time? OK, I understand that this criticism seems unfair – after all, if I lived in a village surrounded by zombies, many of whom used to be my friends and even family, I’d be pretty grumpy too. But what I’m pointing to really is the intensity of teenage angst that infuses Ryan’s book, and which eventually ends up making Mary an irritating character rather than a sympathetic one. I suppose it was brave of Ryan to attempt a protagonist whose moods and selfishness are evident, but these weren’t countered with enough sympathetic traits to make Mary someone you really rooted for. Even, I suspect, if you happen to be a hormonal teenager yourself.
And since I’ve brought up the angst…
I think that YA fiction does benefit from a romance story somewhere in its plot. As a teenager, I liked those moments (I admit, I still like them). Ryan doesn’t disappoint on this score: Mary spends a great deal of time yearning for a certain Travis, the brother of her actual betrothed, Harry. The book’s knotty relationships – also involving Mary’s best friend, Cassandra, who is betrothed to Travis – are relied upon to provide a good deal of the novel’s interest. And to some extent, this works. But only if a) you don’t mind the fierce intensity of the yearning and pining and jealousy and passion that accompanies this aspect of the plotline, and b) if you can get over the fact that Travis and Harry are essentially ciphers of ‘maleness’. It’s this second point that’s the real pitfall. Travis and Harry simply weren’t developed enough as characters for me to care particularly about them, or for me to care which one Mary ends up with. I didn’t even really get a sense of what was different about Travis; he and Harry seemed much the same to me, basically interchangeable. And this is a shame. Ryan goes to such lengths articulating Mary’s feelings, but neither Travis nor Harry emerge as complete and sympathetic characters. Instead, they seem merely convenient figures (male #1 and male #2) to complement Mary’s emotions. The first-person narrative certainly shouldn’t have prevented this kind of characterisation from being established.
Moving on from the characterisation issues, I also felt that the concept – whilst it had a lot of potential – was also not developed sufficiently to really draw me in. Ryan does give us some clues to what might have been before the Return (the emergence of the infection that brought about the Unconsecrated), and what might in fact lie beyond the Forest – but really, these are nothing I didn’t expect. The point at which I was most intrigued was, in fact, near the start of the book when Mary discovers that the Sisterhood of her village are keeping tantalising secrets concerning what lies beyond the Forest. But as the novel moves on and we move away from the village, these ‘secrets’ are easily guessed, and they’re basically unexciting. Moreover, the ‘code’ which Mary puzzles over for the greater part of the novel doesn’t generate any extra suspense – partly because the reader knows immediately that it’s just Roman numerals. It would have been better had the code genuinely been something that the reader couldn’t figure out either, if we only discovered its solution when Mary did. As it is, we just have to wait until the protagonist realises something we’ve known all along.
Having said all this, the book was definitely not awful. I raced through it pretty darn quickly. I wondered – to some extent – what was going to happen (though I have to admit I was willing it to uncover more interesting revelations than it did). The writing was slick and not as indulgent as it might have been, what with the intensity of the passion Mary felt for Travis – a restraint which I appreciated. What we have here is a book that is certainly readable, and which has a brave concept, but which unfortunately doesn’t reach its full potential. Perhaps Ryan develops her ideas more intricately in the sequel, but if that’s so, it comes a bit too late.