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Book Review: The Reapers are the Angels, by Alden Bell

inverarity
If Cormac McCarthy wrote a YA zombie novel.


The Reapers are the Angels

Tor, 2010, 225 pages



For 25 years, civilization has survived in meager enclaves, guarded against a plague of the dead. Temple wanders this blighted landscape, keeping to herself and keeping her demons inside her heart. She can't remember a time before the zombies, but she does remember an old man who took her in and the younger brother she cared for until the tragedy that set her off on her personal journey toward redemption. Moving back and forth between the insulted remnants of society and the brutal frontier beyond, Temple must decide where ultimately to make a home and find the salvation she seeks.




Okay, I don't care what shelf you find it on — this is not really a YA novel. It's got a fifteen-year-old protagonist and it's a zombie novel, but it's not YA. The prose is artful and does not condescend, there is a fair amount of (admittedly half-baked, being birthed in the brain of an illiterate fifteen-year-old) philosophy that does not bear directly on the story, but most importantly...

See, YA novels pretty much have to have a happy ending. Or at least a victorious resolution. Sure, the author might kill off a kid sister or a friend or two, but ultimately the heroine is going to find some measure of peace and happiness, or at least safety. There is closure of a nature reassuring to the kids who read YA novels and the neotenous adults who prefer them to adult literature.

The Reapers are the Angels has closure, but not that kind.

Still, it has many outward resemblances to books like, say, The Forest of Hands and Teeth or Blood Red Road. Enough to make the differences glaring. You could imagine The Reapers Are the Angels as what those books might be like if they were written for grown-ups. Or imagine it as The Road with a YA heroine.

Temple was born after the zombie apocalypse ended most of what passes for civilization, and doesn't remember the old world. She is a wanderer by nature, with no surviving kin, but by chance she comes across a mentally disabled man for whom, quite against her wiser inclinations, she takes up the burden of escorting on a road trip to probably no longer living family on the other side of a zombie-ravaged country. Why? Partly because she has nothing better to do, but also because she is a restless soul with things to atone for, even as young as she is, never having known a world that wasn't a zombie post-apocalypse, but fifteen years old with a sense of decency and compassion that hasn't been extinguished by her impulse towards violence.


You get old, Temple. The wide world is a pretty adventure for a long time, it’s true. But then one day you wake up and you just want to drink a cup of coffee without thinking about livin or dyin.
Yeah, well, I ain’t there yet.
Goddamnit, girl, what happened to you? You got things to tell. You could tell me.
Maybe so, she says. But I ain’t there yet either.


Along the way, they encounter any number of horrors, and a very small number of kindnesses. The "meatskins" are really the least of the dangers — Temple dispatches them quite readily with a gun or her Ghurka knife. But there are creepy ordinary folks in mansions, and even creepier Texas Chainsaw Massacre-type folks in the hills. And then of course there is Moses Todd, whom Temple irks by killing his brother. Even he admits that his brother had it coming, but now he has to kill her. That's just the way it is. And like a slightly more affable Anton Chigurh, he pursues Temple and her mute companion (whom she just refers to as "dummy") across a blighted American landscape.

It is written in Southern Gothic style, and the dialect of Temple, who was born after the zombie apocalypse ended most of what passes for civilization, has shades of McCarthy and Faulkner.


It has become something to her, that memory — something she can take out in dismal times and stare into like a crystal ball disclosing not presages but reminders. She holds it in her palm like a captured ladybug and thinks, Well ain't I been some places, ain't I partook in some glorious happenings wanderin my way between heaven and earth. And if I ain't seen everything there is to see, it wasn't for lack of lookin.

Blind is the real dead.


Temple is, for all her violent, unschooled, barbaric ways, a true innocent. Not naive, but not blind to wonder.

Plotwise, The Reapers are the Angels is derivative of Stephen King and any number of zombie novels; the story is good enough, but this is the sort of book you're likely to like, or else find annoying, because of the prose.



Verdict: If you are not completely burnt out on zombie novels, The Reapers are the Angels is a short, literary take on this well-worn theme. Highly recommended for YA readers as well who might like to try something a little more upmarket.




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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
count_fenring
Dec. 7th, 2013 03:25 am (UTC)
See, YA novels pretty much have to have a happy ending...


So... a YA novel not meeting the arbitrary criteria of someone who's not a fan of the genre (or, rather, meta-genre defined by age category) makes it not a member of the genre?

I'm not sure I follow your argument, and I don't think I agree, regardless. Sure, the majority of YA stuff has some form of positive resolution for the protagonist... but then, I'd guess that to be true of the majority of media. Tragedy often has a stronger showing in genres and media with critical acclaim, but the taste for nihilistic or brutally tragic endings has generally been a more rarefied one than that for positive progression.

I guess I'm just saying that "X is bad, I like member of X, therefore it's not REALLY a member of X" isn't a sustainable argument. The Last Unicorn was written explicitly for the same audience as modern YA - there's not a damn thing wrong with Peter S. Beagle's writing.
inverarity
Dec. 7th, 2013 03:32 am (UTC)
I'm pretty sure the author and the publisher do not classify it as Young Adult. In all seriousness, I do not think this is a YA novel, any more than True Grit or The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon are YA just because they have teen/preteen protagonists (though nowadays they tend to get that label).

I did make some other arguments besides "It doesn't have a happy ending." And I do like some YA. Even with happy endings.
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