The Forest of Hands and Teeth takes place years after The Return; after a zombie virus has torn through the world’s population. Mary lives in a fenced off village (possibly the last surviving village) near a fenced off zombie-infested forest that the villagers refer to as The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Theirs is a simple village, dedicated to God, run by the nuns of the Sisterhood. Their goal is to sustain humanity – to marry and procreate to keep the human race alive. There are customs involved in choosing a mate and Mary believes she will be betrothed to Harry, though she longs for his brother Travis. What she truly longs for, though, is to see the ocean that her mother has described to her in vivid detail, through passed-down stories.
However, all of this falls by the wayside as the sirens go off in the village – the sign that there has been a zombie breach or that someone has been infected. Mary has already lost her father to the Forest, and that siren signals the loss of her mother as well. This sets a series of events in motion that propels Mary and a small group of others into a live-or-die situation that none of them has had to face before, and they begin to learn more about their own village and the outside world, even as they fight to keep the flesh-eaters at bay.
I had heard quite a bit of praise for this book before reading it, and I have to say that, for the most part, it lives up to its own hype. First, the good: Ryan creates a visceral story about zombies. She spares no grotesque detail and does a great job showing how the living dead never tire and never give up. She infuses a terror into this world; of having to live with arms always reaching, jaws always snapping, often seeing faces of the people you once knew and loved. She pays attention to the details, too. Logistics are always accounted for: how people get food, water, and shelter in case of a breach; exactly how a person gets infected; how long the change takes, and so on.
The one area where I think Ryan’s story falls short is in the character development. Mary is the most developed character, but still falls flat sometimes. She grew on me as the story continued but there are times when I just wanted to shake her. She vacillates between level-headed practicality and head-in-the-clouds dreaminess. As I read, I started to think that the author didn’t intend for Mary to always be likeable. She is a teenage girl, after all, and sometimes she can be kind and brave, and at other times selfish and stubborn. She grew on me as the story went. The other characters, however, are pretty one-dimensional. This story is most definitely driven by action rather than characterization, but I think even with the flatness of some of the characters, the tense, frenzied nature of the rest of the story makes up for it.
All in all, this was a pretty good read. I would have liked some more character development, but the action was tight and suspenseful and there was more than one time that I wondered if Ryan wasn’t going to kill of her own protagonist. She didn’t always go where I expected her to go with the story, and that’s refreshing for someone who reads as much as I do. If you like action-packed stories and are a fan of the zombie genre, I would highly recommend this book. It is the first in a trilogy, but all three volumes have been published, and I will definitely be reading the next installments.