No doubt, the publishing industry is attempting to rebound from the fiscal crisis by banking on whatever is the most plausible follow-up sensation to the epic, sales-juggernaut Twilight series. Booksellers, librarians, pub reps, avid readers, anyone with a remote interest in the topic is laying their bet on what is going to be the next big series draw. Some are staying with vampires. Some are leaning heavily on werewolves (it seems so long ago since Blood and Chocolate, does it not?), others are saying ghosts (very probable), but some... some are laying their bets on zombies.
Of new YA novels, March's buzz book was The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, mostly because the smart folks at Random House had the savvy to align it with Twilight without making direct comparisons, and because a lot was made of the supposed violence and dark tone of the novel. Well, and I'll admit this right now, I have not read Twilight (although I did read The Host, which proved to be surprisingly sturdy, if problematic...), but I can guarantee that if Twilight held the same poor writing, bad pacing, and gaping plot holes that this novel suffered so severely from, there's no way it would have the near religious following it does now.
The basic premise: Mary has grown up in a cloistered, protected world, defined by the Sisters who run the town, and the fence that separates the civilized from the hungry, savage "Unconsecrated," who, generations ago, rose in population to such a degree that, outside of the village, mankind no longer exists... or does it? Growing up, Mary's mother passed along family stories of life before the Unconsecrated, of cities and human populations and oceans. As a result, the young woman is plagued by a restless curiosity that inevitably leads to trouble.
When the fences are breached, Mary and a small crew of survivors must figure out how to survive while traveling a fenced path that may or may not lead to their salvation. Meanwhile, Mary is struggling with her feelings for Travis, a fellow villager, but cannot freely express her love due to his betrothal to her best friend, Cass, and Mary's own betrothal to Travis's brother Harry. Also along for the death trek is Mary's brother Jed and Jed's pregnant wife, Beth.
The first half of the novel is semi-promising, with its venture into the convent of the Sisterhood that runs the village and the sudden, ominous appearance of a stranger, whose appearance isn't nearly as troubling as her then sudden disappearance. But very little of the Sisterhood's conspiracy is fleshed out, and Mary's minor discoveries, made in the hidden, underground chambers of the Cathedral are surprisingly anti-climatic.
By the time the village is seized by the undead, the story is falling apart. Mary is a difficult protagonist to become attached to as a reader. Under a more capable hand, her contradictions would be worthwhile complexities, and watching her slowly unravel would be a breakthrough for the character as well as the reader. Instead, she is poorly drawn, and instead of coming off sympathetically rebellious, she comes off unreasonably stubborn, difficult, and self-serving. Ryan doesn't attempt to help the reader understand Mary's intrinsic attraction for Travis. The feelings exist, they continue to exist, but the few meaningful details the reader is given don't add up to a romance of impact.
Ryan is a mediocre writer. Not by YA lit standards, because I don't believe that there is necessarily a lower standard, but by genre standards. It is possible to write a thrilling horror novel without losing narrative nuance. Sarah Langan is the name I throw around the most, because I found The Missing just absolutely enthralling. Ryan can't hold the story together. Her supporting characters border on caricature, and attempts to add dimension only muddle the depiction even more.
The ending is a mess. The whole ordeal is reminiscent of the movie The Village, but more abruptly startling in its absurdity. And, as a reader, I didn't buy any of it. It's fine to ask your readers to take certain leaps of faith with you, to suspend disbelief in matters of the plausible. It is not the same thing to write something filled with holes that renders the outcome nearly implausible.
And if I had to read of a character smelling like sunshine one more time...
Yet, with all my complaints, even initially, with the text, I finished the book. There's something weirdly intoxicating about the book that allowed me to continue reading, despite my growing disinterest. I described this feeling to a friend of mine, and she responded with, "I felt the same way during Eclipse [the third Twilight book]. And I had to read the fourth book too."
If there is any mercy in the publishing world, Carrie Ryan will not write another installment. I don't know if I'll be able to stand another book... or resist it.
The trailer for the book is actually more entertaining than the entirety of the novel. Maybe because it uses imagery and words from the first half...