Hi! We’re working on that now-greatly-belated birthday thing. Other note: I decided to start linking to Goodreads because I actually use that.
By Carrie Ryan [Goodreads]
Mary’s village is the last village, the only village, haven to only living people left in the entire world. Beyond the village fences is the Forest of Hands and Teeth, full of undead Unconsecrated who hunger for human flesh, and only the word of the Sisterhood keeps the village on God’s path and protected. But Mary stumbles on to a secret, a stranger from Outside, which means the Sisterhood has been lying for generations. But what are the Sisters covering up — and what is outside the Forest?
There’s some general spoilery stuff unhidden under the cut.
When I was in sixth grade I read a Goosebumps book and it scared the crap out of me, and I think this is the first horror novel I’ve read since. But I figure that zombies fall close enough to sf/f to review here, right?
The book’s biggest weakness is pacing. The first half flounders a bit, as Mary deals with the loss of her parents (both zombie-fied), being turned away by her brother, being forced into Sisterhood because no one will propose to her and then getting proposed to by the wrong brother (there’s a love triangle through much of the book, which is really not my thing at all), and some mystery and intrigue, but it took a really long time for me to get into it. Basically what finally snapped me into the narrative is the zombie attack roughly halfway through the book, when the Unconsecrated breach the fences and Mary and her companions are forced out of the village. That is a long time to settle in. And even after that point it still drags in parts.
The characters also wavered in quality. Overall, I liked Mary; I liked that despite the love triangle, she was driven by a need for more, I liked that she was human enough to freeze up at a few key moments but keep moving at others. She’s a first-person narrator, so it isn’t shocking that she was the strongest character. But I didn’t buy the love triangle, or her relationship with her best friend, because we never really saw why any of their relationships were happening the way they were. Mary loved Travis for… some reason? I never got much of a sense of why she was so desperate for him — or even why she wanted him over Harry, since I never got much of a feel for either one. Ditto for her friend Cass; they have a lovely moment near the end, but we never see them as friends before all of the tension between them, so I never cared much about their friendship. (That said, her relationship with her brother is a bit better, since it actually grows and changes through the book, so I got it on a deeper level.)
Final frustration: the book raises a lot of questions about their society in general and the Sisterhood in particular, some of which I’ll stick behind a spoiler cut: showBut essentially none of those questions are answered. Like, the thing about the blurb that intrigued me was the idea that the Sisterhood is covering something up, but we never find out what or why, and that really irritated me. (Yes, I know there’s a second book, so at least some of this might be resolved. But I’m not sure how I feel about that, frankly; I prefer sequels that are an extension of the story, and this wasn’t a story that needed much expanding, just one full of questions that weren’t answered. And since the second book is a companion rather than direct sequel, I have no idea if it will even involve any of this particular society.)
But with all that said, what the book did well it did very well. I am a wimp when it comes to horror, but I think this book is legitimately scary. Like, I could only read it in small chunks, and not too soon before bed, because I needed a few minutes of daylight and sunshine and non-zombified human contact after a spell of reading. Two other words come to mind: claustrophobic and unrelenting. That’s what makes it all work, I think; the antagonistic force will never stop coming and are always right there with only a fence separating them from the antagonists — and in some places the path is so constrictive that they can only walk in single-file, with zombies on either side of them trying to break through and kill them. And as for unrelenting, it isn’t just the zombies; it’s that Ryan doesn’t pull punches with how death-filled this world is — it isn’t just that several characters die along the way, it’s that as I edged closer to the end, every time Mary faced a group of zombies I wondered if maybe Mary was going to die. Not in a general, “Oh, the hero is in danger,” way, but because despite being in the first person, it seemed like a totally viable way for the story to end. There are moments of hope worked into the narrative, but it is freaking bleak. Really well-done bleak, but bleak.
Overall, I think this book was not really my cup of tea — the world building was well put together, but not enough questions were answered to satisfy me as a reader; and while the horror elements were very well done, they aren’t something that makes a book for me, personally. I’m on the fence about the companion; curious, but not enough so to spend money on it. So: three and a half cupcakes.