Mary lives in a village among what looks to be the last human population on earth. Her village is surrounded by walls made of metal and a forest called 'the forest of hands and teeth', home to the Unconsecrated, the walking dead – mindless beasts who remain relentless in their struggle to breach the village's walls. Mary has lived in this village all her life and has little knowledge of what lies beyond the fences and the forest; knowledge comprising of stories her mother told her, stories of the ocean – a vast bucket of water and salt that stretches to the far ends of the earth. She's intrigued by the ocean. She wants to see the ocean.
Mary's serene world takes its first stumble when her mother wanders too near the protective walls and gets bitten, eventually succumbing to an infection which transforms her into an Unconsecrated. Thereafter, Mary is sent to spend the rest of her days with the Sisters, the village's ruling party.
Things get interesting when an outsider named Gabrielle drifts into Mary's village, and is whisked away by the Sisters before the denizens of the village can hear of her. For Mary, Gabrielle's existence means one thing: there is life outside her village and the forest. But why are the Sisters so intent on keeping Gabrielle a secret? Surely Gabrielle's presence is good news. What are they hiding?
Soon Gabrielle disappears and returns later as an Unconsecrated, but different from her undead peers in that she possesses great speed.
Mary's world finally crumbles when the Unconsecrated, led by a vicious Gabrielle, break through the fences, killing and turning any human being they come in contact with.
It's hard to resist The Forest of Hands and Teeth's pull, whether or not you're a zombie/dystopian fan. Its premise hints at an entertaining, blood-curdling ride. But that's as far as the ride goes – a hint. Forest starts out great, especially during the period when Gabrielle is detained by the Sisters, but after the Unconsecrated break into the village the plot grounds to a halt.
From here on, all we get is Mary and her incessant desire to get to the ocean, or her inner voice constantly analysing her love for Travis and why he didn't come for her before her semi-wedding ceremony to his brother, Harry. It doesn't take long before her inner voice gets rather irritating.
There is some mystery surrounding the Roman numerals labelling the fenced paths and gates Mary and co come across as they seek refuge from the Unconsecrated, but Carrie Ryan doesn't go anywhere with it. The mystery hangs in the air from the start of the book till the end. We get no answers. Nothing.
I'm going to be blunt: all this book has is a great premise. There is no plot whatsoever. Think I'm lying? Here's how Forest goes: Mary escapes from village; whines about Travis; whines about the ocean; whines about Travis or Harry or Cass or Jed; Mary and friends get to new village; she whines about Travis; whines about the ocean; Mary and friends leave new place; she whines about Travis; whines about the ocean; Mary sees gate leading out of forest; whines about ocean; whines about ... hey, this must be the way to the ocean even though I have absolutely no clue; Mary opens gate; Mary gets to the ocean.
Trust me, there's no spoiler in that summary, because there's absolutely nothing to spoil in this book, except maybe that Mary didn't die. But really, were you expecting her to?
It's such a shame. The Forest of Hands and Teeth could have had the greatest plot ever, I'm telling you.
There's this scene where Mary is in a house and she opens a chest. She finds all these newspaper clippings, stuff from the New York Times and other magazines – a whole bunch of informative things that could reveal something, anything to us readers. At this point I'm thinking, perhaps the plot is about to begin. But what does Mary do? She doesn't attempt to learn about the Unconsecrated, how they came to be, how they spread; she doesn't try to learn about what happened to the village she's residing in at the moment. (I mean, she's in a house that is more fortified than any house in her village, stacked with weapons and food that can last a year or more. So how the hell did everyone get infected?)
You know what she does? She picks a picture of the ocean and focuses on it.
The frigging ocean.
And while we're on the subject, what the hell is with this ocean crap? No, really. I get that characters need a driving force, something that pushes them to move on despite adversities in their world, but the ocean? That's it? It's not like the ocean holds the answers to solving the Unconsecrated problem; it's not like Jesus Christ lives there – it's just a freaking ocean. Mary's obsession with it makes no sense. And when she does get to the ocean, nothing special happens. Rainbows don't fly out from the water. Dolphins don't celebrate her arrival. All I get is an anticlimactic scene: the ocean, I've arrived, the end.
Admittedly, Forest reads more like a literary YA book – a character driven novel – and as such it's bound to get away with not having a plot (that's literary genre novels for you). Plus, Carrie Ryan pulls off the literary angle to near perfection. Her prose is beautiful, poetic, and Mary, despite how annoying she is, is well drawn – three dimensional. In the end, even though Mary gets increasingly selfish and infuriating as the novel draws to a close, you realise it's just her character. It's who she is – a bitch. Not Carrie Ryan's fault.
The only thing I can blame Carrie Ryan for is not given me a really cool plot.
Characters were superbly presented, Mary especially. The secondary characters stood out in their own special way, though they weren't as engaging as Mary. I should have given Forest a 9 in this category; I just didn't like most of Mary's decisions.
World building: 8/10
Carrie Ryan crafted a vivid, intriguing and mysterious world – a world bursting with so many exciting questions. It's too bad her world got knocked into the background so the "ocean" could play a more prominent role.
Lush, rhythmical, and moving in most places. Although her dialogues were mostly off.
Which plot? The one where Mary goes to the ocean?
Final Score: 7/10 (on approximation)
Click here to read my review system.
- The absence of a decent plot didn't go down well with me.
- The love triangle (or love square) irritated me: Mary loves Travis; Travis is betrothed to Cass; Cass loves Harry; Harry is betrothed to Mary. Seriously, love triangles are as aggravating as vampires and angels today.
- And what's with writers these days and bashing Christianity? The Sisters are a bunch of Christian lunatics who use God as an excuse for everything: "God said you should wear red. You know what happens when you don't listen to God – he sends the Unconsecrated to destroy the world." I read the same thing in Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life as We Knew It: one character starves herself to death because "God" asked her to; her pastor supports her decision, even though he is well-fed. And in Paul Hoffman's The Left Hand of God: the redeemers, much like the Sisters, are a cluster of ridiculous God-loving paedophiles who create assassins out of young boys. Really? Focus on Islam for once. Oh, that's right. You can't. You know what they'll do to you if you pull that kind of stunt with them. Ask Salman Rushdie.
I'd recommend to anyone interested in character driven novels – Forest excels in that area. If you're looking for a fast-paced, zombie plot, you won't get that from The Forest of Hands and Teeth.