The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a 2009 young-adult zombie novel by Carrie Ryan. Generations after a zombie apocalypse, in an isolated, fortified village, Mary, a newly-orphaned teenager, strives to discover what is beyond the walls.
A good zombie story isn’t about the zombies; Ryan understands that very well. She does a good job of focusing on her characters’ feelings and emotions, and appropriately treats the horde as setting. She isn’t afraid to embrace the gory side of things, either, and she never gets carried away. The foundation is definitely here for a quality story.
The problem is the protagonist: Mary is a huge ball of hormones and self-pity. Yes, a lot of bad things happen to her, but she spends an inordinate amount of time feeling sorry for herself, pining after either her lost mother or the lost love she never had a chance with (which the reader knows is going to happen anyway), and the first-person narrative makes it worse. Whatever sympathy the reader generates for her on the death of her mother is used up in a hurry, and based on the way she acts, it’s hard to imagine that either of her love interests would want to bother with her – but of course, they do.
Religion plays an important role in Ryan’s tale, since the village is more or less a theocracy, and early on, Mary says that she has stopped believing in God. The religion of the village is strongly implied to be Christianity, but it is a knowledge-stifling, Middle Ages kind of stern and loveless Christianity. Granted, one doesn’t expect traditional beliefs to survive a zombie cataclysm (which would certainly challenge the faith of many), but it feels like Ryan has an axe to grind against religion, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
The book is written in the present tense, which does nothing for it. The narrative takes a few shortcuts, and Ryan’s not afraid of some convenient developments. The zombies, for example, never bite anybody when Ryan needs them not to, and there’s really no logical reason why there would be dead ends built into the path. None of this is terribly egregious, but it just feels like the kind of shoddy plotting you can get away with in the young-adult genre.
In short, The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a solid premise spoiled by an annoying and severely unsympathetic protagonist. I will be skipping the sequels.
TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT