Book Review: The Forest of Hands and Teeth

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The Forest of Hands and Teeth
by Carrie Ryan

As Carrie Ryan’s first novel, The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a small step above its contemporaries.  Although there is nothing new in its subject matter – visions of 28 Days Later abound – Ryan comes at it with near-solid footing.  But, in spite of a strong opening and decent construction overall, The Forest of Hands and Teeth has its inadequacies, not the least of which is the nagging suspicion that the words keep piling up merely to fill space.

The constant fear of the Unconsecrated – the undead that populate the Forest that surrounds the village – is the driving force in Mary’s life.  Her village, overseen by the Sisterhood and protected by the aptly named Guardians, is encircled by a fence meant to keep the undead at bay.  It is taken for granted that there is no world beyond the village, and to travel beyond its boundaries means death at the hands of the Unconsecrated – and then rebirth as one of them.  Only when an outsider appears does Mary begin to question whether there is something worth finding outside the haven of the village.  It’s a story we’ve heard before, and will undoubtedly hear again, as Mary faces off against the Sisterhood, her family, and her village to discover the truth.

fohat_thumbThe Forest of Hands and Teeth starts out with uncommon strength and focus but forfeits momentum quickly.  As our tour guide to a world changed by the Unconsecrated, Mary is somewhat lacking, as she spends the majority of her time – and ours – in her own thoughts.  Unfortunately, there is nothing sufficiently sophisticated or unusual about Mary, and she’s a dull host.  Dialogue and plot are small percentage of the bulk; it’s tempting to skim over Mary’s expository until another character dares to intrude.

Where Ryan missteps most surprisingly is in her sparse consideration of the people in Mary’s world – they are always at arm’s length, in colors far dimmer than would be expected.  The majority of the cast is a distant concern in the face of Mary’s suffering, and she greets and loses most of them with hardly a moment for real characterization.  The story is competent, but its characters are interchangeable nobodies.

In spite of its weaknesses, The Forest of Hands and Teeth has its own peculiar charm.  The characters are charmless and the heroine unbearably bland, but the story that Ryan meant to tell remains in its undercurrents.  The world created by the Return of the Unconsecrated is predictable but familiar, and a sense of utter authenticity runs throughout.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth does not do well as a standalone; its sequel, the more relevant but dumber-sounding The Dead-Tossed Waves is already in the works.  Ryan covered good ground in her first novel, and with time, it’s likely she’ll find a better-honed voice for its companions.

Excerpt:

In my mother’s stories, passed down from her many-greats-grandmother, the ocean sounded like the wind through the trees and men used to ride the water. Once, when I was older and our village was suffering through a drought, I asked my mother why, if so much water existed, were there years when our own streams ran almost dry? She told me that the ocean was not for drinking–that the water was filled with salt.

That is when I stopped believing her about the ocean. How could there be so much salt in the universe and how could God allow so much water to become useless?

But there are times when I stand at the edge of the Forest of Hands and Teeth and look out at the wilderness that stretches on forever and wonder what it would be like if it were all water. I close my eyes and listen to the wind in the trees and imagine a world of nothing but water closing over my head.

It would be a world without the Unconsecrated, a world without the Forest of Hands and Teeth.

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forest of hands and teeth book review Carrie Ryan AyDee review
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~ by AyDee on May 24, 2009.

2 Responses to “Book Review: The Forest of Hands and Teeth”

  1. As this appears to be the only way to contact, I shall give you a suggestion here. I really appreciate the originality of your reviews; they’re unlike the mundane jabberwock that most write. The best thing is that you are not afraid to truly rip into a terrible book and proclaim it terrible. It would be, of course, hilarious if you reviewed Twilight, but the hate mail would be too abundant; it’s not even worth a quality deconstruction, anyway. I believe, however, that you and your readers would greatly enjoy Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. It’s about a technology-gifted boy whose state turns into a police state after a terrorist attack. If you haven’t already, read it. A simple internet search will give you the online text, due to the author’s support of Creative Commons. Please consider reading and reviewing it, for both your pleasure and that of the bibliophiles who follow your work.
    I’m looking forward to your next analysis.

    • Reviewing Twilight would require that I finish reading it, and I’m not a masochist.

      I read the first third of Little Brother, and I don’t really think you’d like to hear my review. But thank you for the recommendation.

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