Carrie Ryan: The Forest of Hands and Teeth (2010)

In Mary’s world there are simple truths. The Sisterhood always knows best. The Guardians will protect and serve. The Unconsecrated will never relent. And you must always mind the fence that surrounds the village; the fence that protects the village from the Forest of Hands and Teeth. 

I don’t think it is a coincidence that books like Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth are so popular. All around me people speak about their insecurities, how they have lost their confidence, their belief that all will stay the way it is, that they are safe. Many fear that the world as we know it may come to an end.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth is set in a time, long after the world as we know it has come to an end. A strange illness broke out, called The Return, and since then the world is divided in the people living in the village, guarded by the Sisterhood and the Guardians and those, behind the fences, who live in the forest, the so-called Unconsecrated. The Unconsecrated are living dead, zombies, who spread their disease through biting the living.

The story is told by Mary whose father has disappeared in the forest and possibly become one of the Unconsecrated and whose mother approaches the fence at the beginning of the book and turns. Her brother is a guardian. Mary will mostly probably get married to Harry, that’s the wish of the community and the Sisterhood who reign over this enclosed world. Harry and Mary have been friends forever, just like Cass and Mary have been friends. What nobody knows is that Mary is in love with Travis, Harry’s brother.

Until the day when the Unconsecrated breach the fence and kill almost all the villagers, it’s not clear whether Mary will join the Sisterhood or become a wife and mother. When their world collapses and they have to flee, it’s not that important anymore. Mary and a group of six people and a dog escape the village and reach a secret path that leads through the forest. The path is secured by a fence through which the moaning Unconsecrated try to reach them.

The path is like a maze. It’s mysterious and they do not know where they are going. There were tales of cities and an ocean somewhere beyond the forest. They don’t have a lot of food and are attacked constantly. When they arrive at an abandoned village they hope they may soon arrive at their destination and find safety.

The beginning of the story is unlike the stories in any zombie movie, I have ever seen. In the movies the zombies usually attack from the start and the people have to fight them. In this novel, for a long time, they are just a threatening presence and the book is all atmosphere but then, they close in on them and breach one gate after the other and the book turns into an action-packed novel that moves towards a climatic ending. Climatic and sad as some of the small group of survivors are bitten on the way.

I never felt like reading a zombie novel before and if it hadn’t been for Sarah’s intriguing review I wouldn’t have tried this book but I’m glad I did. It has a very special and haunting atmosphere, very captivating and oddly enthralling. The word zombies, is never used, by the way, but it’s clear from the descriptions. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is part I of a trilogy. I won’t rush to read part II and III right now but I feel like reading them some day.

Here’s another review by Fence (Susan Hated Literature).

50 thoughts on “Carrie Ryan: The Forest of Hands and Teeth (2010)

  1. I’m not a huge zombie fan but I do want to read this one and Warm Bodies. I saw Sarah read that one too. I never used to think zombies were that scary till I saw this documentary on the fiercest kind of zombie called the Draugr..I guess they are viking zombies. The idea of undead vikings scare me a lot. Lol Thanks for the review and I hope to read this soon.

    • I’ve seen a few movies but never read a book but it sounded very good. maybe I liked that it isn’t set in a city but in a village in the forest, sometime in the future when our civilisation is long gone. I’m not sure about Warm Bodies although she liked it as well. I hope you will like it.

  2. I read this, and the sequel, a while ago. I liked the first one, although I did have some problems with it. But I didn’t like the second, and I don’t think I’ll read the third.
    I do like the titles though.

    • Thanks for your comment, that means I really don’t have to rush. I found the characters a bit flat and interchangeable but I didn’t mind it because I just liked the atmosphere and the episode in that village.
      Did you review it and I forgot?

    • You didn’t really strike me as a zombie novel lover. I enjoyed it. I really liked Shaun of the Dead. And Resident Evil. And some others, I guess. But not the cheap 70s/80s ones. Those are awful.

  3. This looks like an interesting book, Caroline! It reminds me of ‘Matched’ by Allie Condie and ‘I Am Legend’ by Richard Matheson, which have similar elements in their plots. I would love to find out what happens to Mary – whether she marries the man she loves or she marries the man that society wants her to marry.

    • I haven’t read Matched nor I Am Legend but I saw the movie (I Am Legend). I almost bought I Am Legend and Flowers for Algernon the other day. Have you read them?
      I cannot tell you what will happen. 😦 I thought I’d like to read Matched as well. And Divergent but I already got a few others. Birthmarked and Delirium.

      • I have read ‘I Am Legend’ and liked it. A very different kind of vampire novel. I have heard of ‘Flowers of Algernon’ but haven’t read it. Hope you get to read ‘Matched’. I have heard wonderful things about ‘Delirium’. Hope you enjoy reading it. Happy Reading!

  4. So glad you liked this (and thanks for the link!). I agree that the characters were a bit ho hum, but the setting and ideas of the story were so interesting. My little sister started the second book and didn’t like it at all, and another good friend read it and didn’t like it. I guess it is a bit different and has a character that is somewhat polarizing… I am in no rush to read it, although I have a few questions that I would love to get the answers too…

    • I did like it and I’m glad you reviewed it. It was perfect, I was in the mood for something like this and that’s when it’s best. I have questions as well but I start to think that the biggest problem is that they will not be answered in the next books either.
      It seems Mary is polarizing as well. Fence didn’t like her at all, judging from the review. I didn’t mind her but I was captivazed by the descriptions.

  5. This has been on my radar for a while, but I am worried about the zombie element. Your review has reassured me (a bit). I’m not going to go out of my way to buy this, but if I happen to fall over a copy I might give it a try.

    • I thought it was well done, and quite different. It’s not too explicit on the zombies, not too graphic. Just bear in mind that the characters are not very complex. It’s all about the atmosphere and the story.

  6. I think it sounds interesting; I like atmosphere and plot. I disliked Pride and Predjudice and Zombies, but am not opposed to another zombie book. Just want to be able to get involved with the situation, not standing by exercising my inner critic as I did with P&P&Z!

    • I haven’t read that but I’ve seen very mixed reviews. This is very different, I’m sure and, as I said in other comments, if you can forgive the characaters being a bit similar you migh enjoy it. It did remind me of Marsden’s Tomorrow series.

  7. I might enjoy it as a film, but I doubt as a novel. Particularly if the sequels are weak.

    Characterisation of course tends not to be the focus of SF, fantasy and horror which are much more about the ideas and the atmosphere, so it’s not surprising the author doesn’t focus on that part of the book.

    I am Legend incidentally is pretty good. It’s by Richard Matheson of course. Always good value. The premise today is a little trite, but it’s important to remember that’s because it’s so imitated.

    • It a very visual as a book and would work well as a movie. On the other hand the way I pictured them in my head was more like ghosts than like zombies… The sequels sound very weak which is too bad. there would have been potential for more.
      Thanks for the info, I feel like reading I Am Legend, as it’s a precursor.

  8. Make the zombies more metaphorical, and this sounds like the plot of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. Though I like the cover and title, I’m afraid this will probably pull a very high number and have to move to the back of an already very long to-be-read line. Anyway, in popular culture these days, zombies seem like second-string vampires. Still, I’ve been curious about the Max Brooks zombie novels – do you know anything about those?

    • I thought the fact that she never even called them “zombies” allowed for different interpretations but I can see that you might not want to rush and get this.
      I must have a look at Chrysalids.
      Zombies are gaining in popularity these days but they seem to play a very different role from the vampires. Vampires and Werewolves go sort of hand in hand but the zombies always have this postapocaliptyic element and I think this speaks to people. This was a bit of a pop-versio of The Road (which I need to read).
      I haven’t read Max Brook but World War Z is on my wish list since Skye mentioned it. The Survival Guides are highly popular as well. It seems our culture’s way to deal with fears of a collapse of our society.

  9. a dystophia with zombie… I am already thrilled by your review. I am not a zombie movie fans, but I do enjoy zombie in books. Although many people don’t like SK’s CELL, but I love it so much.

    thank you for sharing this, I never heard abou it and I have been searching for this kind of story since CELL.

    • I think you really might like it. maybe you should also read Sarah’s review. She does review a second one. I didn’t know SK wrote a zombie novel. I like some of the movies. I liked the fact that Carry Ryan calls them the Unconsecrated. That gives an additional dimension. I hope you can find it and will like it. It builds up slowly but from the middle on it’s very gripping.

  10. I’m not sure I see the link with The Chrysalids at all to be honest. What’s the thought there? The Chysalids does involve a post-apocalyptic community with a strong religious element, but other than that I’m not seeing much similiarity.

    World War Z is alright, but overrated in my view. The pacing is erratic, some strands work much better than others and unfortunately the big set piece battle in New York makes no sense to anyone with any knowledge of how modern weapons actually work. I preferred his Zombie Survival Guide. World War Z seemed to take the same joke and perhaps stretch it further than it could really go.

    • I hope Scott sees your comment.
      Maybe that’s what he meant, because of the religious element and the post-apocalyptic setting.
      Thanks for the input on World War Z. I have a problem with erratic pacing. I’m still in the mood for post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian settings but may try something else instead. Without zombies.

    • Max, you caught me out; it was a negligently and quickly tossed off comparison. The plot is not much the same (if at all, perhaps inverted and at a slant). But I was indeed struck by the religious element and by how much apocalyptic speculative fiction posits one community fenced off from another, and is about the breaching of that fence. This book also seems to adopt – as does The Chrysalids fairly grandiosely silly terms (“The Unconsecrated,” like “The Blasphemies”) to construct its post-apocalyptic world. But you’re right; I should be more careful – particularly when opining about books I haven’t even read.

  11. It’s a new book, right? I have confident I can find it. Well, SK’s zombie was really cruel and caused not by virus. As for movies, I love 28days later and Shaun of the dead.

    How slow is it? this could be a problem if the pace is really slow till hundreds of pages.

    • It’s two years old. It’s never that slow but not as action-packed in the beginning as towards the end. At least there is no anti-climax. After the most intense part it’s finished. There are things happening all the time.

  12. I have heard of this from Amy, but somehow never yet came around to picking it up. I wasn’t aware that the book featured zombies, which may make me more hesitant to pick this up. But since you said that’s not a subject you usually enjoy reading about and yet enjoyed it, I think I may be convinced 😉

    • I’m not your typical zombie novel reader. Nor is Sarah, I think. 🙂
      I didn’t picture them as zombies. It’s quite a sad book, really but somehow fascinating. It’s a quick read. I hope you will enjoy it, should you give it a try.

  13. I was sort of so-so on this, but it makes a surprisingly good discussion book. I agree the atmosophere was well done, and the book has stayed with me. This is an example of a book I appreciated more after discussing with other readers.

    • That’s interesting. I don’t think I would have picked it withouth Sarah’s review and sort of knew what to expect despite the fact that she didn’t give away too much. I presume if I had focussed more on the characters than on the atmosphere as such, I might have had a problem.
      The Sisterhood had some aspects worth discussing. I read a few reviews on amazon and many people had a problem that mos questions aren’t answered. I tought that’s because it was part I but it seems that’s just the way she wrote. Will you read the sequels?

  14. Pingback: The forest of hands & teeth | Susan Hated Literature

  15. Not the kind of book that I would pick up, but my son is surprisingly big on zombies and I’m tempted to see if he’d be interested. I bought him for Christmas The Zombie Survival Guide, mostly because I loved the quote on the back from a reviewer who said he’d begun reading it as a big joke and really enjoyed it, then found himself buying a machete just to be on the safe side!

  16. I think it was wise that the author didn’t mention zombies, since there is a whole slew of books like that these days (maybe too many?). It sounds like she’s doing something not very typical with this sort of story. I think I would have passed this by as well, but it does sound very good the way you describe it. I sort of like dystopian fiction, but I have to be in the right mood for it (and maybe not read it in bleak winter). I’ll have to add this one to my wishlist.

    • It’s very mood dependent whether this type of book works or not. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t uplifting. After the other cmments I’m not sure I’ll read the next one as well.

  17. Pingback: Best Books 2012 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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