This review is very spoiler heavy. The ending is talked about. I tried to review the book without spoilers but I just couldn’t get my emotions across as I wanted to.
I would recommend only reading this review if you have already read the book.
I first came across this title about a year ago when a blogger that I was following at the time read it for Hallowe’en and rated it as one of their favourite books of the year. It got put on a back burner of “maybe I’ll look into that one day” until my GoodReads group, Basically Books, considered it for their monthly read (it got degraded to buddy read, but no matter). So I found a copy of it for a fiver and figured I’d give it a go. It’s got all those shining reviews, right? There has to be something good about it… The fact that Twilight, Blue Bloods, Graceling, etc., all also have hundreds of shining reviews seems to have escaped me.
From just reading the synopsis, I thought it sounded rather like the literary version of M. Night Shyamalan’s film, The Village, except with zombies that invade the village instead of weird scary demon creatures. I figured I couldn’t go wrong.
Presentation: I have the British paperback version. It’s an average-sized YA book with relatively large font that is well spaced. There are 309 pages broken down into 36 chapters so the chapters aren’t particularly long.
Story: Mary has lived her whole life in her isolated village in the middle of the Forest of Hands and Teeth. They tell her that there is nothing beyond the village, only Unconsecrated (zombies) that hunger for human flesh. But her mother has always told her stories of life before the Unconsecrated, of a wide expanse of water where all you can see is more water – the ocean – and Mary clings to the hope that there has to be more out there than just her village.
When Mary’s mother is bitten, doomed to become an Unconsecrated herself, she chooses life as a zombie over death as a human. Mary’s brother, Jed, blames her for allowing their mother to make that choice and casts her out of the house. She is taken in by the Sisterhood – followers of God who run the village – where she is to become one of the Sisters as no one has asked for the right to marry her. She discovers that the Sisterhood has been keeping secrets, secrets that doom the village.
This is your last chance to turn back. Spoilers ahead.
Thoughts and impressions: Everything started out fine, if a little slow. There’s quite a bit of background information given in the first half of the book. You get to know Mary a bit. You’re presented with her world, her village and their customs, and some of the history. You meet the requisite love triangle – brothers Harry (who wants Mary) and Travis (whom Mary wants) – and the best friend, Cass. You see the Cathedral and the Sisterhood from the inside. You overhear whispered conversations that hint that there’s more to their world than they’re letting on. You find out that those paths the Sisters always said never lead anywhere must actually lead somewhere because a girl came down them. You discover that the Sisters must have fed this girl to the Unconsecrated because the next time she is seen, she’s on the other side of the fence and she’s moving fast – she’s not a normal zombie, she’s a speedy zombie.
But why is she speedy? you ask. That answer is not given. What has the Sisterhood to do with the Unconsecrated? you ask. You’re never told. What’s with the Bible in the locked room with scribblings in the margins? you want to know. That is something that you will have to keep wondering.
I don’t mind when a book does not answer all of the questions put forward. Really, I don’t. But some of the questions ought to be answered. I know why we don’t get the answers here – Mary doesn’t know them herself and after the Sisters sacrifice Gabrielle (the outsider) to the zombies and then get everyone in the village killed, it becomes evident that that could well be information that has died with the Sisterhood. The story then becomes a quest for survival. It could easily have taken a different, and in my opinion more interesting, route and become a quest for answers – but the pull of the ocean is too strong. Every story should answer at least some of the major questions it poses, but in this case I get the feeling that it’s all just going to be relegated to sequels – at least I hope the sequels answer these questions! Not that I’ll be reading them.
So Mary finds herself in the fenced off paths with six other survivors of the village massacre, with no idea where they’re going or if they’ll survive. Mary becomes absolutely obsessed with Gabrielle (who follows them, bashing into the fence and trying to reach them, until she ‘burns herself out’) and the clue she left scratched into the window pane in the Cathedral – “Gabrielle XIV” (I think it was XIV, I could be wrong). So they wander around this maze with no clue where they’re going, frequently hitting dead ends and having to turn back and slowly running out of food and water. Mary gets annoyed with Harry for wanting to marry her when she wanted to marry Travis and he’s expressed reciprocal feelings; she gets mad at Travis for not coming to save her from marriage to Harry when he’d said he would; she gets mad at her brother for bringing along his infected wife and eventually coldly announces to everyone as a (very) low blow to her brother in a fight that Beth is, indeed, infected and Jed will have to behead his wife, Harry and Travis their sister. Then she wanders off on her own, feeling a little guilty but not at all ashamed of her actions and eventually makes her way back there with the information that the paths are marked by weird letters in a pattern she doesn’t understand. This is followed by more of Mary getting annoyed with Harry, the party coming close to starvation, and then Mary becoming even more one-track-minded when they discover a fence that reads “XIV” and she equates it to Gabrielle’s origins. She leads them all into a village full of zombies without thinking and they get separated – Mary and Travis end up in a house together, the other 4 ended up in a treetop “village”. Everybody has food and water, all is good.
But it’s not because Mary can’t be happy with anything! She’s in a house, safe, with the boy she claims to love and who loves her too. What does she do? She avoids him and spends her time staring at the other four in their treetop safe haven! She becomes obsessed with being remembered and not forgotten. Her old fascination for stories of the ocean rears its ugly head again (now that she no longer has Gabrielle to be obsessed with) and she takes out all her fears and frustrations of the one she supposedly loves but doesn’t want to spend time with.
Eventually things go wrong, as they inevitably would, and the zombies get into the house. So while Travis is fashioning an escape route for them, what does Mary do? She looks at photos of the world before the Unconsecrated, reads a book of poems and tries to distract Travis while he tries desperately to save her life. To make things worse, this is the second time she’s been a useless lump of lard in such a situation! During the attack on the village, Harry is busy ransacking their cottage for anything that may help them survive. What does Mary do? She lies in bed then gets up and puts her skirt and blouse on. Seriously? Seriously?! Mary could not survive on her own and it’s only because of the blind love these two men feel towards her (of which she is not worthy) that she’s even made it this far.
So Travis sends her across to the others then follows himself, but is attacked by Unconsecrated and for a moment it’s a bit touch and go as to whether or not he’ll make it. Then he comes and speaks with Mary and she pretty much tells him that he’s not enough for her, that she wants the ocean. Bitch. As if a few waves could ever make up for being loved and cared for. The ocean won’t protect you, it won’t make sure you get away from a zombie attack – in fact, if Gabrielle’s story is to be believed, it’s more likely to dump a bunch of zombies on you than protect you from them. And yet she still walks away from him.
Cue big fire forcing them to try to escape back to the fenced off paths. Travis, already wounded from a nasty break to his leg at the start of the story and then the zombie attack on the house just recently, takes a rope, leaps down and tries to make it to the paths so he can secure the rope and provide them with a means of getting across to the corridor without having to wade through zombies. He manages to secure the rope, but being already wounded, the Unconsecrated do enough damage to turn him. Too little, too late, Mary realises that he would have been enough but he’s still dead - well, undead until she slams a scythe into his neck - he still gave his life for her. This is where I admit that I cried at this point. I know that really there’s not all that much to Travis’s character – he stays quite shallow throughout the story but I view this as being in part because Mary does not allow him to become deeper. We don’t know why she loves him, we don’t know why he loves her – but this is written from the first person perspective and thus everything is only shown as Mary sees it, and Mary only chooses to see how Travis cares for her. Despite him being shallow, I liked him. By this time I did not like Mary.
She doesn’t do anything to redeem herself. In fact, in her blind obsession she manages to get Jed killed as well. Or we at least are led to assume he’s dead. He falls into a river full of zombies, but then so does she and she survives. His corpse is never found and I was half-hoping that he would just randomly reappear in the sequel, having miraculously survived his trip down the river. Then I discovered that the sequel is about Mary’s daughter Gabry (and the obsession with Gabrielle lives on!) so I lost all hope of that ever happening. The remaining 3 companions are just left in the forest - Lord knows what happens to them. But Mary gets to go and float in the sea, to taste the salt, to see the never-ending expanse of water – even if the beach is full of recently decapitated zombies. So Mary gets her happy ending. She doesn’t deserve it! She’s a selfish child who has got everyone who ever cared about her killed throughout the course of the novel. She deserved to die as well. She did not deserve to fulfil her dream of reaching the ocean.
Let me point out at this point that I have nothing against novels with bittersweet endings. The Book Thief – I cried, I hated the author for what he did (even though he announced that he was going to do it right at the very beginning of the novel) but I loved the story and recommend it to everyone. The High Lord? I cried, I hated the author for what she did, but I loved the story and still snap up everything she writes. The Saga of Darren Shan? I cried, I hated the author for what he did, but I still loved the saga as a whole. But this one? I hated the author for what she did and it brought me to the point of hating the book as well. In all the other cases, the characters had gone through such trials, so many ups and downs. Yes, they’d made mistakes at times, but they were presented as being so very human in so many ways that I knew the deaths weren’t their fault but caused by outside influences – be those bombs, fights against the enemy or whatever else. In this case, the deaths were caused by Mary’s one track mind and her obsession with getting to the ocean. She was a horrible, horrible character.
It is very rare that I get so worked up about a book that I disliked like this. It is very rare that I ever feel hatred towards a fictional character – I mean, they’re fictional, they’re not worth it. But in this case? I can’t help myself. It is stronger than I am.
Style: Fairly basic. Written in the present tense. Not essentially bad but not good. Frequently boring.
Final verdict: In another author’s capable hands, this story could have been so good. If it had taken a slightly route here, a different plot idea there, it could have been one of the better YA horror stories out there. As it is, I was intrigued by the first half, made wary by the third quarter and appalled by the ending. I wish I could unread it. 1 star.
Extra notes: No swearing (I think – if there is it didn’t stand out), no sex.