This weekend, while I sat on the couch waiting for my fellow bridesmaids to finish their two hour getting-ready-for-a-night-of-bachelorette-debauchery rituals, I read Graceling by Kristin Cashore. Unlike my fellow YA bloggers, I didn’t love it. I wrote up a whole review and couldn’t decide whether to post it. To distract myself from actually making a decision, I read The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. I was up until 5am finishing it, and fell so deeply in love with this book that my decision became suddenly easy.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth is like some crazy-awesome combination of The Village (if it hadn’t sucked) and I am Legend (had another 250 years or so passed and had Will Smith not been a badass and saved mankind…again). In the middle of the forest, there is a town run by The Sisters and The Guardians whose purpose is to protect the villagers from the Unconsecrated’s attempts to get closer to the delicious flesh living inside. And, according to The Sisters and The Guardians, the town is all there is. There’s nothing else.
Mary doesn’t believe that. Mary remembers her mother’s stories of the ocean and a time before The Return and The Unconsecreted, and so Mary believes there is more. Mary’s belief in this Outside, this other world, is the book’s real strength. From the beginning of the novel, you fear for Mary and you sympathize with her plight. You feel her frustration at being comfined inside the Forest. You feel her despair as she wonders if she’ll ever have a life instead of just living one that’s been decided for her. You feel her agony as the dreams she’s clung to seem to slip from her fingers. And, more than that, you feel the flashes of hope and joy she is given through her painful struggle to chase down what she wants (even if it means dying for a chance to achieve it).
More than just feeling Mary, you feel the suspense of the novel. Ryan has created a secondary cast that is well-rounded and likeable while at the same time staying mysterious, for you’ll only know them as well as Mary does and the town seems built on secrets. You find yourself caring for each of them. Jed, Mary’s stubborn brother whom I spent the beginning of the novel wanting to punch in the face. Harry and Travis, the two brothers – one of whom Mary loves and one to whom she is supposed to be betrothed. Cass, Mary’s best friend, intricately tied with the two brothers as well. Even Argos, Mary’s valiant dog.
Maybe it was just that it was 3am as I plowed through the plot of the novel. Maybe it was the fact that the branches on the tree outside my window brush against it with a horrifyingly slow screeching noise when the tiniest wind blows through. Maybe it was the fact that I’m still a little freaked out by dark and quiet. Or maybe this book just created a suspense the likes of which I’ve never felt. All I know is that my pulse raced and I feared as I plowed through the pages. I genuinely worried for each of the above characters. I feared who would die, if anyone. I picked the character I thought I could stand to lose only to turn the page and have to change my mind. I felt like I was Mary, and being Mary was intense.
The book wasn’t absolute perfection. At times, I found the love story confusing and frustrating. And, at times, Mary’s headstrong desire to find what else is out there – to make a better life for herself – came across as selfish. There was a particular section that found Mary sitting around, waiting for someone else to come to her and all I could wonder was why she wasn’t going to him – why she wasn’t acting like the strong, independent young woman I knew her to be. But this little flash of insecurity, frustrating though it was, only made me end up loving her more.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth was one of the best books I’ve read this year. It is another step in the new (and heartily reassuring) trend in YA lit to make strong, independent, but still relatable heroines who show that what you want is worth fighting for, and that you can be more than what society says that you have to be. I loved it, and I hope y’all will too.
A sequel is coming, so be sure to look out for The Dead Tossed Waves on March 9.