The Forest of Hands and Teethis a well written but squandered book. Mary is down at the river being an annoying teenage girl with romance issues when the sirens go off. The walls of her small enclave of humanity have not been breached; instead her mother has seen her father beyond the fence, and gone to him, and been bitten. Her mother has a day or two before she dies and becomes undead – or Unconsecrated in the religious nomenclature of the town. The opening is a slam-dunk of rapid exposition, setting up the world and then dropping the reader into the middle of it, with feeling.
I really enjoyed the beginnings of this story. There are often structural samenesses to zombie fictions: the first zombie, the first bitten, the ethics of a group of people trying to get out of the city, the electricity cutting out, the failure of society. Here, it is generations after the First Night, an insular community built in a tenuous enclosure, the constant dampening vigilance of checking the fences, the conservative high-handedness of the political/religious institutions that enforce social norms because, well, it is true that an individual’s single stupidity can bring those fences down. Of course, institutional stupidity can do the same, and without transparency, the individual cannot protect themselves from collective stupidity either. Nice.
And Mary’s troubles were interesting at first too: her mother’s choice to become a zombie and search unthinkingly for her late husband; her brother’s anger at how Mary’s actions will result in hard choices for him; his early rejection of her. Even the fairly standard love triangle had potential, written at first with a kind of obliqueness I enjoyed, though I am no fan of the love triangle. I am often shouting priorities, people in zombie fiction – good gott, leave that family photo album behind and save your skin – and here it was complicated with the dreary everydayness of the zombie threat. Indeed, why can’t Mary choose the boy she favors? Why is this society so weirdly sexist when it is run by a Sisterhood? How is this society dealing with the inevitable infidelities that will occur when people have to marry for convenience? After several generations with a small group – no more than a couple hundred – do you have to worry about incest? Some of these questions are answered, and some of them are answered badly, and some of them are ignored completely as Mary’s tics, obsessions, and needs overtake the story and obliterate sense or character.
Mary’s two love interests, a pair of brothers – hot! – are never even partially realized, and the fourth wheel, a friend betrothed to Mary’s paramour, she is dealt with shabbily, in that way that cuts down female characters other than the heroine. (I can’t even unpack Sister Tabitha at the moment, but when you put her fervent abstinence and cruelty up against the mother, who shows up only to die for love, abandoning her children, you have your usual ugly portrait of maternal figures in parallax. One’s an ineffectual noodle; the other a stone bitch.) Mary shows more compassion towards a fast zombie threat, a girl called Gabrielle, than she does any other character.
Wait, let’s think for a minute about the love triangle, if one can even call it that. I get the impression – and I don’t pretend to know YA that well – that the triangle is a major component of much young adult writing. This makes sense; I see a lot of the themes of mass produced fantasy for women sinking down into YA. (Or bubbling up? Choose the metaphor that works best for you.) If you look at rom coms aimed at older women, you regularly have the Byron and the Baxter, tropes played for laughs for an audience who has likely chosen their Baxters after learning that the Byrons are a bunch of alcoholic dickbags who will steal from you and bang your roommate. But it’s fun to wax wistful about how jaunty the beret is.
In YA, this choice is a little different. The best triangle I can think of is between Peeta and Gale in The Hunger Games. These two characters embody choices that Katniss has to make about what aspect of her personality she wants to nurture: Gale’s anger or Peeta’s compassion. Love is a political choice as well as a personal one, and the fact that Katniss has to chose, and the choice she eventually makes, is riddled with regret and sadness. Here, the boys embody nothing, as far as I can tell. One has always loved her, the other has always stood aside. One makes a horrible speech about how amazing Mary is, when I do not trust that at all. Why is she amazing? Because she has an obsessive dream that does no one any good, and a lot of people ill? I guess I amaze at that, but certainly not the way the speachifier intends. Not getting too far into spoiler territory, I find Mary’s last ditch, and the way she treats her brother horrifying in the extreme – you, Mary, are as stone a bitch as Sister Tabitha, adhering to your insane idealism that is not dissimilar from hers. Except you never cared about community one whit.
Though the writing is quick enough to keep you moving along, the middle section is a muddle, a Mordorian series of slap-fights, being hungry, and bickering. Will she work out the Roman numerals, or won’t she? My money’s on that she will, because otherwise we have wasted a lot of time pondering something the reader knows already with no freaking payoff. The section at the other village had me paying attention again, but it was for naught. Despite the fact that she is functionally co-habitating with her lover, her relationship with him never feels more than topical, two people in the same room, but silent. Maybe some of this is the YAness of the book, but one does not have to talk about the inevitable sex those two are having to discuss their relationship, to have it be more than OMG sparklez I lurves him.
I feel like the later events grow more and more random, finally depositing Mary at the source of her obsessions, thinking back on all the people laid waste by her choices. (But not really thinking, more musing to herself –[remember that time when I got everyone I know killed because of a childish, useless dream? That was awesome. What’s for dinner?) I really liked the zombie story written by Ryan for the Zombies Vs. Unicorns collection, because I felt like the story dealt with certain kinds of narrative narcissisms with a pickax – a girl raised up on romantic fictions learns bloodily how useless they are – but the way this one goes, I’m beginning to wonder if my reading there was against the grain, like I was wrong. Maybe I was to take away from the short story that the girl was wrong for discarding romanticism. If I’m to think of Mary as something other than self-involved to the point of sociopathy, then I don’t much like this book. There’s some wiggle room here, and maybe I’m to cower at the horror of idealism, given how destructive Mary’s single-mindedness is. This is a pretty subtle point though, one that if it is being made here, is likely laughing at the intended audience, which discomforts me as well. If Ryan is showing romantic cliches in their worst aspects – the antisocial nature of love, devotion to negation -that is wonderful, but she never shows her hand or lays this bare.
I don’t know. I liked the very beginning, and the writing on a sentence level, but I’m not impressed by the characterizations or all of the dropped threads. I’ve seen YA novels which mess with romantic tropes a ton better, like Daughter of Smoke and Bone, with its Romeo and Juliet stylings that go in unexpected ways. Here, it wasn’t so much unexpected as confounding, and I’m left standing on a beach full of corpses looking for the way of things. There’s another book, at least, in this series, and I’m curious to see where it goes. I’m worried, worried a lot where this will go, but it is okay for now