Justin's Reviews > The Forest of Hands and Teeth

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Jun 19, 09

bookshelves: zombies, young-adult, romance
Read in June, 2009

This is a zombie book, so I wanted to give it top marks just on general principle. It was highly enjoyable, but not as great as I wanted it to be.

I actually didn't know this was YA literature until after I already started reading it, as I picked up a context-free advance reader's copy. That being said: I want every young person who likes Twilight to buy and read this book. Immediately. Please. Even with its flaws, this story mixes supernatural horror and sappy teen romance much better than those infuriating books.

Ahem. I digress.

The story follows a girl named Mary, who lives in a repressed, timeless sort of village isolated by a network of fences and gates in the heart of the Forest of Hands and Teeth, a vast wood overrun by flesh-eating corpses known as "the Unconsecrated." The book opens with a snapshot of life in this village, where the inhabitants have apparently lived for some time under the leadership of The Sisters, a secretive organization that is obviously a descendant of the Church. The villagers have built a drab routine of keeping fences mended and babies coming, creating a fragile bastion of human life amidst the constant backdrop of hungry, relentless undead. Mary’s life is suddenly rocked by tragedy, and as she finds herself herded into joining the Sisters, she begins to discover more about the powerful church and their knowledge of the Unconsecrated, including things that she is not meant to know.

Anybody who is familiar with good zombie stories knows what happens next, and why it happens. The majority of the book follows Mary and a group of refugees (including her betrothed, her secret lover, her secret lover’s betrothed, and the older brother that previously shunned her) as they journey down scantly protected paths into the heart of the Forest of Hands and Teeth, looking for answers and a safe haven from the never-ending waves of walking death.

There are a lot of interesting dimensions to this book. It begins after the "zombie apocalypse," focusing on the hardscrabble existence of such an event’s survivors. The setting is realistically creepy, and while some may take issue with the unexplored backstory of the Unconsecrated, I think that’s the best kind of monster story; Mary doesn’t know why things are happening, so why should I? The suspense is constant. And the Unconsecrated are masterfully portrayed here, mixing shuddering horror and unflinching gore with curious anomalies and heartbreaking interactions, to great effect nearly all of the time.

No young adult story these days is complete without a little teen angst, and this book has the requisite amount. Over the backdrop of zombie attacks and dystopian happenings, Mary’s concerns lie primarily with how to deal with the two boys involved in her life, and the best friend she stands to lose through her decisions. Though this kind of thing tends to be annoying usually, the setting and happenings of the story lend real emotional weight to her problems, and make them considerably more sympathetic; after all, in this book’s world, commitment is a truly important thing to consider, and sudden, violent death is always a very real possibility.

With that said, though, the characters fell a little flat with me, which dragged on my enjoyment of the story a little. That just might be my own bias, since character study is one of the most important parts of a book for me. But I just didn’t particularly like Mary that much. I didn’t understand why she does what she does for most of the book, and I don’t really find any of the supporting characters very sympathetic or interesting. There is some backstory and a few quirks that give Mary and the others motivation, but the story never really goes beyond those quirks, simply reasserting them every few chapters or so. Now, characters in a zombie story are usually one-note, which I’m generally okay with, but Ryan really focuses on character interactions in the middle of the book. Without the deeper exploration of the characters, I felt these chapters actually slowed the story down, as I didn’t find their interpersonal problems nearly as interesting as I wanted to. This is not to say that the characters are bad, as they are portrayed very realistically, and Mary in particular gets a lot of soul-searching time (as, after all, she is the story’s narrator). I just feel like more time could have been spent with them. Perhaps that’s an unfair judgment of a YA story, but then again, I feel like a couple of the themes explored in the middle of the book are quite mature and complex, and could have been much more interesting with characters that were a little more fleshed out.

There is also a whole lot that gets left unresolved, including a few story strands that start as major plot points and dwindle away to nothing, unexplained. Moreover, the story doesn’t have a proper ending; it just stops. Both of these things very obviously point to a sequel, which is a great thing; Ryan has created a visceral world, and I want to learn more about it. However, I hope some of these abandoned plot points get revisited, because they are awfully weak standing alone as they are.

When all is said and done, this is a decent debut and a great zombie tale. I thought it had a few problems, but considering what the story is and who it is meant for, I was able to let them slide. I would definitely recommend this for teen readers, and naturally, any good zombie fan should give this one a try, as Ryan creates a deft homage with an impressive creative spin.

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Forest of Hands and Teeth.
Sign In »

No comments have been added yet.