Saturday, April 18, 2009

Book analysis: The Forest of Hands and Teeth

My analysis of The Forest of Hands and Teeth
by Carrie Ryan.

Carrie, if you read this: it’s a good first try, and I wish you luck with the next one.

TFHT is a novel set long after a zombie apocalypse, when the world has reverted to a rural substance society, isolated by zombie fences and vast forest plagued by the undead. The story is told 1st person, present tense (a poor choice which I found distracting). The world building is interesting, though inconsistent, and the writing is compelling enough to draw a reader along despite a terribly annoying protagonist.

The story centers on a young girl who spends most of the book uselessly emoting, whining about things that are easy to fix, and doing stupid things that get her friends and family killed. As you may have guessed, I did not connect with the protagonist.

The good things:

It has a very strong 1st chapter. Chapter one starts with some beautiful imagery, then in just 9 well written pages, it sets up nearly every conflict and relationship in the book. This is the right way to start the book (and the main reason I bought it).

By using short paragraphs (few more than three sentences long) and very short chapters (averaging 7 pages), the author keeps up a brisk pace.

Most chapters end with a hook: a cliffhanger or unanswered question.

Most chapters begin with a hook: a twist or new, surprising information.

It has some good world building. TFHT presents a reasonable scenario for a post-zombie apocalypse world where we basically lost, but a few pockets of people survived. There is a well-developed society that appears to have survived for generations in a zombie-infested forest. An interesting, though inconsistent, zombie mythos is presented. Its most original facet is the concept that zombies hibernate when no living are nearby, allowing them to survive for decades in a dormant state.

The social extrapolation with fences, dedicated defenders, drills and escape platforms is good. However, the obvious way to deal with these zombies over a period of decades is to actively kill a few dozen each day so that over time, there are none left. Another way to dispatch them is to use passive defenses that entangle and dismember them as they mindlessly attack. Either way, survivors would take action to thin the zombie ranks rather than idly waiting for them to break through the fence (as presented in this book). Ah well, something future zombie novels can improve upon.

The bad:

Writing drops off after first chapter. Very little imagery is used, and what little there is relies overmuch on simile. The descriptions tend to be simple, generic, and often confusing. There is also a lot of repeated description. The worst one: “tears burning my throat.” This shows up at least twenty times. The overall writing is so different from the brilliant first chapter that it feels there were two different authors at work here.

A deeply unsatisfying ending. Spoiler alert! In the last three chapters, everyone but the undeserving protagonist die. This wraps up all the dangling plot points, but ruins the book.

Poorly developed characters. None of the characters, even the protagonist, are well developed. The boys are one dimensional -- generic, faceless automatons devoid of any personality who are strangely devoted to the protagonist who mistreats them and gets them all killed. The best friend is only described as “sunshine” and displays no personality at all (less than one-dimensional).

Inconsistent world. The zombies change throughout the book. At first, they are weak, harmless things easily held back by a dilapidated fence. Later, they can smash through doors and floors in seconds. And their numbers vary from twos and threes, to countless hundreds depending more on the author’s whim than any logic.

Unsympathetic protagonist. The protagonist is sympathetic at first, a dreamer and an outcast. The problem is, when several other characters rally around her, she remains 100% selfish and I think most readers will quickly come to hate her. She rarely takes direct action, waiting instead for a dues-ex-machina to appear and force the plot one way or another. She gets tripped up by simple problems that could be solved with two lines of dialogue or five seconds of direct action. She gets her friends and family killed one at a time, feeling bad for a few pages after each death before doing the same thing to the next person, whittling them away one-by-one until she is the sole survivor. Never does she see her own mistakes, never does she learn, and never does she try to do better. So the set up is good—it generates reader empathy. But she does not maintain that through the rest of the book.

Unrealistic / unbelievable action. This problem is inconsistent, there are some good action sequences, exciting fun, compelling. But there are a number of gaffes in the action sequences are so bad they unintentionally prove to be the most entertaining element of the book. The first: A puppy proves more effective than a sword (and is used as the dues-ex-machina twice to save the protag from certain death). The second: the helpless protagonist proves more effective in battle than trained, seasoned zombie fighters. It’s not just the juxtaposition of roles, it’s that she displays this kind of emo-rage that gives her super-human zombie fighting powers but only when she is emotionally overwrought. While in an emo-rage, she is able to kill zombies left and right, lopping multiple heads with a single swing of her mighty axe, able to fight on through hundreds of zombies...while just 1 or 2 prove a match for the trained zombie-fighters traveling with her. Weird. Unintentional. Laugh-out-loud funny.

Terrible dialogue. This is by far the worst part of the book. A typical dialogue in the book is: cardboard boy says one word. Protagonist emotes about the implications of that word for a page or more and often doesn’t even reply. Boy follows up with an incomplete sentence. Protag emotes for another page. Boy storms off. Protag emotes some more, repeating much of what she has already emoted about in previous pages. Some chapters consist entirely of this. It is painful to read and bears no resemblance to real human interaction or even to literary dialogue. It is so bad that several times I had to put the book down. Carrie, if you read this please study up on the dialogue before you turn in the next book.

So, that’s the writing analysis. Mimic pace. Improve on the world building, avoid TFHT-esque dialogue and useless, long-winded emoting. And while this is not a book-review, the book is entertaining in that quick-read-by-the-pool way, but it missed some really good opportunities for exploring the world and the characters and parts are downright hard to sit through. I’d give it three stars.

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