Sunday, 25 September 2011

Guest Book Review: Niall Alexander reviews The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Today I have a grand little guest review by none other than the beloved Speculative Scotsman, Niall Alexander. I am very grateful to him for taking some time out of his super mega busy schedule and providing a review for your delectation. I can assure you, no one writes a review like Niall (in a good way!) so enjoy this and then head on over to his blog and become a follower!

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Reviewed by Niall Alexander

Another day, another dystopia.

In a village surrounded on all sides by the risen dead and so utterly isolated that the ocean has taken on mythic status, amongst a community of survivors over which the fiercely traditional Sisterhood holds sway, young Mary has lived her entire life with one foot in the grave and her head resolutely in the clouds. "How fragile we are," she muses, "like fish in a glass bowl with darkness pressing in on every side." (p.37) But reality bites, and Mary's bleak reality bites all the harder, for suddenly the time comes to be married off in accordance with the Sisterhood's strictures, and no-one's asked for her hand.

However, such questions - of a loveless marriage, or a life utterly without love, or only the love of a God this misbegotten girl has given up on - such questions as those are soon forgotten when the township that is all Mary has ever known comes under attack, first from within... and then without. Without, where the Unconsecrated roam...

I don't know if it began with The Hunger Games - I doubt it - or if this fascination with the plight of those left behind by the end of the world was only buoyed by the success of Suzanne Collins' game-changing trilogy, but the state of play in YA today is much of a muchness either way: nary a month goes by without the launch of yet another new series with designs on all those readers taken by the Mockingjay's tale.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth, I think, is not that. I mean, yes, it's a trilogy; yes, there's a love story sewn through it, without which seam the whole quilt would come apart in your hands; and yea, verily, the young protagonists - chief amongst them a girl burdened with responsibilities beyond than her years - spend it fighting for their very lives in a world gone to hell in a hand basket. Par for the course, perhaps. Swap out Collins' contestants (themselves ripped from The Running Man) for zombies, or the Unconsecrated as The Forest of Hands and Teeth has it, and you've pretty much got the gist of this one. Or you would, were it not for Carrie Ryan's incredibly powerful prose.

Now it's not always immaculate. Particularly as the going goes, and we approach an all-or-none conclusion so devastating as to put one once more in mind of The Hunger Games and its bittersweet denouement, particularly then Ryan seems to sacrifice the composure she's shown in order to up the ante, and I would really rather she hadn't. Add to that a heroine who seems to see-saw from one emotional extreme to the other in a matter of minutes, and a love triangle which can seem duly contrived, and perhaps you begin to grasp how roundly style trumps substance in The Forest of Hands and Teeth.

But I can forgive a beautiful wordsmith much, and Carrie Ryan is that, at times. To wit, writers with such admirable aspirations often fall afoul of prose so minutely considered as to seem overwrought - some might say I should know! - yet there is a terrific undercurrent of the unspoken to Ryan's dialogue, while the understated comes naturally to her exposition. Her imagery is often haunting; her lexicon evocative, and absolutely appropriate to the tale, which is to say one of solitude and belief, love and trust.

Imagine if you will The Reapers Are the Angels for readers a touch younger than Alden Bell's audience, with - and why not? - a certain helping of The Hunger Games crowbarred in for good measure, and of course added bullet points in the marketing materials. As such, I would recommended The Forest of Hands and Teeth, but only with the aforementioned reservations. If a lesser author had knocked the same story out, I'd have said to steer clear, yet the larger part of Carrie Ryan's debut works a dark charm as a showcase of a formidable talent on an upwards trajectory - if not as a particularly notable narrative in its own right.

Thanks so much, Niall - definitely a book that I need to get to!

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty sure Hunger Games just added to a popularity that was already there. I'm working on a project related to post-apoc fiction, and something I've noticed for YEARS is that the people who read this genre are ALWAYS looking for recommendations on more books with a post-apoc or dystopian setting. It's really exploded in YA, but it's been a slow burn for decades.