Monday, 22 March 2010

The Forest of Hands and Teeth Review

The Forest of hands and teeth 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: 8/10

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.

Prose: 8/10

Lush, rhythmical, and moving in most places. Although her dialogues were mostly off.

Plot: 4/10

Which plot? The one where Mary goes to the ocean?

Final Score: 7/10 (on approximation)

Click here to read my review system.

Final thoughts:

  • 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.


  1. GREAT review!! I have the book, but haven't had time to read it yet. My sister didn't like it at all, thought it was boring. I'll have to wait and see what my opinion is.

    I agree with the Christianity aspect. I hate how that's the one religion everyone uses when it's time to basically poke fun at one, or have it make someone crazy. Seriously? How many other religions are there in the world and you pick this one? Give it a break.

  2. This is on my TBR, I'm looking forward to it.

  3. @ Becca, yeah Forest is pretty hard to get into, and it does require twice or four times the amount of concentration to sit down and not get bored with the way the plot doesn't move. So I understand your sister. But I think it's a great book, at least for writers who want to learn how to write character development. Carrie Ryan does the book justice in that department.

    Lol yeah, the Christian thing is everywhere. Everytime there's an apocalypse, it's always Christianity that is left. But a weird version of Christianity. According to most writers.

    @ By Pen: let us know what you think when you read it! :D

  4. It's interesting to read other's reactions to this book. I actually really loved it. I wasn't bored at all, and I did think that it moved quite well considering that it is literary. It's true that a lot of questions don't get answered, but then we have to remember that it's in first person, so if the answers weren't available to Mary, then we wouldn't get them either, and in a way it's more interesting for me at least to wonder how things ended up the way they were instead of being told. Ryan could have moved the book in the direction where Mary finds someplace safe to live, maybe even some way to fight the zombies and return the world to the way it was before, but she didn't do that. That would have been the rather predictable and safe route to go, but instead she leaves the characters in their rotten world, she kills off a bunch of likable ones, and she even made the MC selfish in the end. I applaud the unpredictability in this book. Few authors have the guts to do that. Months after reading it, I found myself thinking about it and it's rare that a book does that to me, so I had to give it a better rating than you did. But, I'm in no way dishing on your review - everyone has their likes and dislikes.

  5. Fair enough, Angie. I thought I gave the book a fair rating, especially in the categories where Carrie excelled at (world building, character development and prose). I just did not see a plot, at least one befitting of a book of such epic awesomeness: unconsecrated, a world with no computers, no federal government, no media. A world where we don't know the year. Nah, this book deserved a much better plot.

    I didn't see the unpredictability either. The plot was pretty much linear. I knew Mary would end up at the ocean. I guess for me, the unpredictable bit was how her relationship with Travis ended - after all the love-triangle force feeding I got from reading the book, I did not expect that.

    But like Harry (in the book) said to Mary: "Cass was right - you're only chasing stupid bedtime stories and it's selfish." I couldn't agree more. The whole ocean thing was a stupid bedtime story. It was selfish and it cost the lives of some of the characters.

    Carrie Ryan did a rather bold thing by writing a selfish character, but I hated how everyone else had to suffer for her dreams and not her. If she'd got bitten on her way to the ocean, and finally found it before dying, then I would have absolutely loved this book: because then her ridiculous actions led to at least one dire consequence. Instead, she got her precious ocean and every other person got left behind.

  6. So totally unfair. :( I love Cass. She deserved a better friend

  7. You have a great scheme for criticizing! I really adored it. Hope one day you can do one of those on my book lol

  8. I hated The Forest of Hands and Teeth. It made no sense to me. Literally 17 pages into it and the focus completely changed and left me reeling. So, suffice to say, I didn't finish the book. I read reviews of it afterwards and was really glad I hadn't wasted my time.

    Was it me or did it seem like everything was moving slow and fast at the same time? No? Okay... And I agree about the Christianity thing. That was just weird...

  9. @ Remilda, I had the same problem with the moving slow and fast at the same time thing. Lol there's this bit in the novel when after Mary and co escape from their village, they spend sooooo long at the fenced path. I almost cried lol but I read on.

    Being a writer, I have to read everything. And I did learn some lessons on character-driven writing. It's just that, I'm the sort of person who loves excitement in books, you know. Not just reading and reading pages and pages of character inner voices with no plot movement

  10. I completely agree. I don't think I'd be able to write a character-driven novel. I've tried, and I always quit because I feel like nothing's happening. I have such a short attention span when it comes to books and so I expect the book to grab my attention early on and I try to do that with my writing.

  11. I am so glad to see these comments. I absolutely hated the book. I am actually not even done with it yet. I had to stop out of annoyance and take a break. Now that I know the ending I will spend my time reading a book I actually like.

    Here is what I hated about it:
    1. Mary is ridiculously dramatic. She is always pacing and thrashing and sighing and bursting and flinging and as I pictured the story unfolding she ended up looking like a lunatic in my mind. I know she loved Travis, but honestly, would anyone ever really act like that?
    2. She never has realistic conversations with anyone. She brushes lips with Travis, then the fall into each other, then storm away from each other and he is ALWAYS wrapping his fingers into her hair, but would they really sleep together every night and live in the same house for months without her EVER EVER EVER talking to him about why he didn't come for her and that she slept with his brother?
    3. I actually listened to the audio book and Mary's mother and the sisterhood had spanish accents for no reason whatsoever. Mary, Travis, Harry, Jed, and Cass didn't have any trace of an accent. How did they learn to speak so differently? Annoying as hell.

  12. OH MY GOSH! Finally someone who agrees with me! GREAT review! Mary's voice is QUITE annoying, and I was constantly shocked by the lack of AH-HA about the Roman numerals. Ryan took a promising plot and turned it into a story that's difficult to care about. And let's not even start on Mary's "love" for Travis...

    Btw, I just reviewed this book too, so if you want to stop by my book review blog, feel free!


  13. This is a good, accurate review. I loved this book, it took a lot to get me to put it down. Carrie Ryan is a talented author for sure, though Mary was, while a well-developed character, infuriating. Inner-monologues of "It's all my fault! I'm so selfish! If only I hadn't been so selfish, so-and-so might still be alive!" was met with me yelling, "YOU'RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. NOW SHUT UP AND GET OVER YOURSELF."
    And yet, there was something about this book that makes you want to read on. I really hope Ryan brings some of the mysteries, that were dangled tantalisingly in front of us for about five seconds, into the plot of the sequels. I really, really do.

  14. I honestly loved it. The book I own has a front cover of a flower and gave absolutely nothing away that it was a Zombie book. In fact, I read all the way through before it clicked, the initial book idea it's self surprised me. They're aren't many zombie books around. Mary's plot isn't useless, as this is just setting up a basis for the other two books. Her love for Travis I can understand, you're desperate, there's a high chance you'll die, this is the one hope you'll cling too. For Mary the ocean was important before love but. It wasn't just an ocean, it was freedom, a life outside the fences and of the forest. I can relate to that also, these needs become consuming. I think the book was a brilliant representation of human nature: the darker side like selfishness. The book felt real, the characters weren't perfect and the interactions with Travis, brushing lips, added to the tension. You know you felt some tension there, you started to feel what she did. Also Christianity is often picked on or aimed at in books and shown like cults because half the time, frankly they are. Christianity has become such a liberal tradition. Everyone interprets it differently and makes up their own things, rules, values, etc to follow. Christianity marginalizes women frequently, this book shows a matriarchal system and how Christianity can be changed. Christianity is also a religion with simplistic basis that are easily manipulated into excuses for things. You can't use Buddhism is religious explain a zombie apocalypse. What are you gonna say? All the energies in the world just became all to consuming and bam, zombies? Christianity works better. God's will broken, and he's being vengeful. The love square-angle was also frustrating, maybe if they just said I like you etc, but things like that are complicated. We say Mary should have just asked etc, but if we wouldn't in a similar situation we shouldn't have expected she'd do that, anyhoo, I'm done, :)


Keep it clean and constructive. Thanks.