Retro Review: The Forest of Hands and Teeth series

Carrie Ryan

The Forest of Hands and Teeth

Gollancz (2009)

ISBN: 9780575090859

Mary lives in an isolated world where fear is constant, and danger ever present. Her village is locked away from whatever else may be out there in the world, forever sequestered by the threat of the plague of “undead” that surround them outside the fences. The society Mary lives in is harsh, confining … and facing extinction.

Within a few chapters, Mary’s already fragile world is turned upside down – her mother dead, her village destroyed, and Mary on the run with her betrothed, beloved (they aren’t the same person), brother, and pregnant sister-in-law, fleeing into the unknown only because the threat behind them is more dire. Mary’s young life has been filled with pain and death, but at least she had always had the sanctuary of the village, and the “known”.

This book drew me in and kept me engrossed, and I read it in pretty much one sitting. However, there is quite a bit about it that bothers me. To begin with, this book has been promoted as the next Twilight; unfortunately, I just don’t see the correlation. I think it’s actually better written than the Twilight novels, but what makes that series so popular with the target audience is the fraught emotional connections, the emotionally draining love triangle between Bella, Edward and Jacob, and the wish fulfilment facet of the story. The Forest of Hands and Teeth simply does not have that aspect of emotion. There is indeed a love triangle, but it does not hold anything like the power of the Twilight connection.

Additionally, there is a world of difference between the impact of a vampire/werewolf novel, and a zombie novel. Vampires and werewolves have been made sexy in recent years. Zombies have not. Post-apocalyptic scenarios are even less sexy, and Ryan has not created anything new there to boost interest. In fact, while reading, I actually became overtly aware of similarities between the premise of the book, and the same premise posited in other novels, particularly World War Z, I am Legend, and even The Stand. I think the similarities were a little too obvious for my comfort, although a reader without that background would not see the problem, naturally. And given it is aimed at an adolescent market, perhaps that’s a moot point. To me as a reader though, it was plain to see, to the point of knocking me out of the story at times.

Other concerns were less story based, but more like, “I wonder why the publisher would DO that?”. For example, on the front cover and spine, the title is written as “The Forest of Hands & Teeth”. However the title page inside reads “The Forest of Hands and Teeth”. I’m sure there’s some legitimate design reason why an established and well-known publisher would use an ampersand instead of the word “and”, but I’ll be beggared if I know what it is. It’s a minor point, and has nothing to do with the story, which is what’s important, but it really irritated me. Another irritation, albeit one I completely understood the reason for, was the choice of cover design and font. This was a blatant marketing ploy to grab for the Twilight audience, and is one I’ve seen replicated in a number of recent book releases. It is overtly obvious though, and even the target audience are noticing it and scoffing. They’re teenagers, not stupid!

In all, I feel the marketing for this one is all wrong. It is a good read – it sucks you in and drags you down into a dark and not-nice place. It has a combination of graphically explicit and psychologically implicit horror that will appeal to a lot of readers, but that will be a real shock for any teenage girl who picks up the book looking for a “Mary-Sue” Edward and Bella story. I’m not sure if the author plans more stories in the world she has started in, but I’d be surprised if the apparent target audience, the adolescent girl, picked up a second novel, although interested horror fans almost certainly would.

The Dead-Tossed Waves

Gollancz (2010)

ISBN: 9780575090903

Gabry has lived her life by the ocean, sequestered behind a barrier designed to keep out the dead. She’s never known anything different, and she’s lived with enough fear that she never wanted anything more. But then she and her friends dare to go through the barrier and the very worst happens, shattering the life she knew forever. Gabry’s world is destroyed she now has to face not only her fears, but all that is terrifying.

Sequel to the well-received The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Dead-Tossed Waves continues to consider the question of what it would be like to live in constant terror of being over-run by a menace that could not just kill you, but could mean the destruction of the entire place you live, and all those around you. Gabry’s mother Mary is the protagonist of the first book, and while her role in this one is quite small, particularly in the early pages, there is some further progression of her story as well. Having said that, Ryan has done a very good job of making this book stand-alone, and new readers will have no problem starting here.

Interestingly, some of the events of this book mirror those of the first – Mary was part of a love triangle; Gabry finds herself in a similar situation. They both run from the only home they’ve ever known, and struggle with the loss of those closest to them.

I liked that the publisher has moved away from the black, Twilight-esque cover that graced The Forest of Hands and Teeth, as these books have so little in common with Twilight and its sequels that such comparisons did Forest a disservice. The Dead-Tossed Waves has a simple and elegant cover and while it’s not necessarily representative of the actual story, I prefer it greatly to the original cover of the first book.

Ryan’s writing is compelling, and as with the first book, the reader is dragged into an intense story that is difficult to tear away from. It is full of action and emotion and horrifying drama, well-executed and powerful to read.

The Dark and Hollow Places

Gollancz (2011)

ISBN: 9780575094840

 

Annah, left abandoned in a city under constant threat from the plague of undead that began generations previously, finally decides she needs to move on. It’s a dangerous choice, but no more so than inertia. On her way to somewhere new (but unknown and unlikely to be safer), she is confronted with the ghosts of her past, and her world is again turned upside-down.

There doesn’t appear to be a series title for this trilogy, which began with The Forest of Hands and Teeth, sort of continued with The Dead-Tossed Waves, and is supposedly concluded here in The Dark and Hollow Places. I say “supposedly” concluded because to be truthful, the series doesn’t feel finished with this book. It’s been marketed, but not jacketed, as a trilogy (at least in Australia) and I feel that each of the three books actually stands up pretty well as an individual story. Which makes me curious as to why market this book as the last of three? I would be very surprised if this actually is the final book Ryan publishes in this world, and the ending is certainly open to another.

The Dark and Hollow Places is a book of constant tension – as with the earlier novels, the ever present threat of the Unconsecrated (zombies) is inescapable. There is no possibility of escape or redemption if the Unconsecrated take hold, and that is what Annah lives with every day.

Annah herself is an interesting character. While I found some of the story to be a little unbelievable, I did feel her behaviour in the book accurately reflected how she was described – she is a survivor and she does what it takes to stay alive.

To be honest, I would have preferred this, and all the books, without the male/female relationships – they all feel quite forced, and not at all realistic even given the context they are presented in. The main character in each book is, on her own, interesting and powerful, even when made to feel otherwise by those around her – I wish the author hadn’t felt the need to shoehorn in boy/girl relationships that really seem to get in the way of the story, and detract from the strong characters she created.

I didn’t really love any of this series – the first was probably the most readable, because of the premise and the pace. The second, and this one, seem to suffer somewhat by comparison – not being as well-paced – and also in terms of believability. I particularly had trouble with the idea that Annah and Elias could have survived at the age they did, and that Annah could then survive three years on her own, given the way the society is described, as well as how they struggled to live even when together. My favourite part of this book is towards the end, which I won’t discuss, but it really showcases what I would have liked to see more of in Annah throughout the story, rather than just at that point.

That said, it will no doubt appeal to the target young adult audience, with the action and darkness making it something I would recommend to both male and female readers of fifteen or so.

These reviews were previously published separately in different forums.

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