Genres: YA, Zombies, Horror, Dystopian, Fantasy
Synopsis: Growing up in the Forest of Hands and Teeth, Mary’s mother told her stories about the ocean. The people in charge of the village try to quash Mary’s dreams and ideas, but she holds onto hope even when her situation seems dire.
Review: If you want to read a book set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic world where the characters live with the constant threat of the undead, you should check out this book. If you want something creepy and scary, maybe skip it.
Some time before this book, the dead rose up and spread their infection through biting their victims. We don’t ever really learn how long ago the dead started to come back, but that isn’t due to shoddy writing. The main character, Mary, grew up in an isolated village in the middle of a forest that they call “the Forest of Hands and Teeth”, after the threat of the undead that live there. Her village is protected by fences and is overseen by a group of nuns called the Sisterhood. These religious leaders, led by Sister Tabitha during the events of this book, have taught the many generations worth of the village’s children that they are the last people on earth. They also call the undead Unconsecrated.
Mary grew up with stories about the ocean. She believes that the ocean exists beyond the forest and that it is some place away from the fences and Unconsecrated. Even during her darkest time, she holds onto the hope that the ocean exists and, as she plans an escape, that she will one day see it.
If you’re not super into romantic subplots I do have to warn you: the story includes a sort of love…square? I guess?
In the village, there is a ritual in the autumn where older teen boys tell the Sisterhood that they are interested in one of the older teen girls so that they may begin courting during the winter and hopefully lead to a marriage. If a girl remains unspoken for after a certain age, she either stays with her family or joins the Sisterhood. A young man named Harry has his sights set on Mary, but Mary has always only thought of Harry as a friend and instead hoped that Harry’s brother Travis would ask for her. Travis instead asks for Mary’s best friend Cass. Cass and Harry develop feelings for one another while Travis is healing from an injury and Travis confesses to Mary that he only asked for Cass because Harry was going to ask for Mary. A bit confusing, but at least it goes beyond the frustrating love triangle so often written into YA where the main character is conflicted about who to choose. Mary is not conflicted about who she wants, but she will make sacrifices if it means she can escape.
Other, non-romantic relationships in the book are handled quite well, I think. Mary’s relationship with her older brother Jed is complex. At times it feels like Jed is unnecessarily cruel and harsh on Mary, but tensions resolve and Jed explains himself. Mary and Cass have a lovely friendship. Even with the whole Travis and Harry thing, the narrative never pits the best friends against one another. They both express feelings of jealousy and hurt, but they resolve to make up. That’s something I look for in just about every book I read. Does the main female character have healthy relationships with other girls and women? Or is she “not like those other girls”? I want to read stories about girls supporting each other and caring for one another, even through ugly emotions like jealousy. I’m tired of books where the female main character is petty and even cruel about other girls and women and the other female characters are one-dimensional cardboard cutouts who only exist to make the female lead look good. It’s such an overused and lazy trope. Also, incredibly misogynistic. You can have female characters with male best friends who still get along with other girls. Example: Hermione Granger. Sure, she’s best friends with Harry and Ron, but she also has a great relationship with Ginny, gets along with Luna and many other female students, and has respect for Professors Sprout and McGonagall. A few people she doesn’t get along with:
- Professor Trelawney: overworked Hermione gets frustrated with all the talk of “omens”, but was still horrified when Umbridge tried to kick the divination teacher out of Hogwarts
- Professor Umbridge: a truly horrible person that only people who benefitted from her by gaining power liked
- Lavender Brown: they always had a bit of a personality clash, and it became worse when Lavender started dating Ron, but Hermione remained polite when they were in Dumbledore’s Army together and during the Battle of Hogwarts. Hermione even tried to save Lavender when she was attacked by werewolf Fenrir Greyback.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth treats Mary’s relationships with other girls and women similarly. She might not get along with them all the time and have uneasy relationships with some of them, but she doesn’t wish any of them ill will.
A couple things I struggled with a bit in the novel was the romantic subplot felt a bit forced at times and Mary wasn’t the most likeable character. I understand what Ryan was trying to do with the romance, but maybe it didn’t translate so well. As for Mary, I don’t have to love the protagonist in every single book that I read, but I like to feel some sort of connection with them. Again, I get what the author was trying to do with Mary’s characterization, but sometimes good ideas don’t always come across too well in writing.
Overall, however, I really enjoyed this book. It kept my interest and kept me wanting to turn the page to read on.