Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Reapers are the Angels

The Reapers are the Angels
by Alden Bell

Publisher's Blurb:
Zombies have infested a fallen America. A young girl named Temple is on the run. Haunted by her past and pursued by a killer, Temple is surrounded by death and danger, hoping to be set free.

For twenty-five 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 on a personal journey toward redemption. Moving back and forth between the insulated remnants of society and the brutal frontier beyond, Temple must decide where ultimately to make a home and find the salvation she seeks.

My Reaction:
I had a mixed reaction to this book.  It was very well written-- much more elegantly (if not realistically) presented than your average zombie novel.  I admired the strength of our young heroine, Temple, and was always interested in what would happen next.  And yet... Something was missing.  Emotion... I didn't have an emotional response.  For whatever reason, it left me, if not quite cold, at least a little cool.  As a result, I have to give a half-hearted review.

Caveats aside, I would recommend the book to fans of zombie/post-apocalyptic fiction who are looking for something less pulpy, more literary.  Though in some ways it seems like YA literature, some of the rough language and themes (not to mention the violence) make it inappropriate for younger readers.  Best for only the oldest teens and up, imho. 

Tidbits (with SPOILERS):
--  I liked Temple best in the very first section of the book and somewhat less as the story went on.  (Not a good sign...)

--  Temple drags out some odd words for a girl who apparently has had so little formal education.  (She's street smart, but illiterate.)

--  It's always interesting to see how characters in a zombie novel label the zombies.  (Seems like they very rarely call them "zombies".)  In this book, we have "slugs", "meatskins", "creepers", and "gobblers".

--  Temple was born into the zombie-infested world.  She doesn't know anything else, and so she's more at home in the new landscape than are adults who remember how things used to be.  She's exasperated with people who sigh over the past and creep through the present with fear and loathing-- or act like they expect the world to somehow change back, if only they wait long enough.  She, instead, is the ultimate pragmatist.  The world is what it is; she's alive now, and she accepts her reality with no qualms.  That's a fascinating perspective, and one I don't think I've seen addressed in other zombie books. 

--  Not a huge fan of the present tense in fiction.  Eventually, I got used to it, but I still don't love it.  Similarly, not impressed by the lack of quotation marks. I mean, why?  It just makes the book more difficult to read.  (Of course, I think e.e. cummings was pretty ridiculous for eschewing capital letters.  My tolerance for nonsense is low.)

--  The Biblical references... Not sure I have much to say about them.  Ta-da.  They were there. 

--  "In her own experience, she's learned that happiness and sadness find their own level no matter what's biting you, mosquitoes or meatskins."

--  I was amazed to read reviews that faulted Temple for killing Abraham Todd.  She could've called for help, yes, but she's a teen-aged girl, he's a grown man, she's in an unfamiliar place, and help might not have come in time, if at all.  Also, she didn't try to kill him.  He suffocated while she was fighting him-- after he first tried to force himself on her, then tried to slice her open when she punched him in the groin.  It's not like she planned to kill him, but you know what?  I wouldn't feel particularly upset with her if she had killed him on purpose.  Think of all the other poor girls or women he might have abused in the future.  This is the post-apocalyptic world, guys.  There's not a judge sitting in the courthouse waiting to sentence him to time in jail.  You try to rape or kill someone, you get what's coming to you.

--  All that said... "She shakes her head.  I liked this place too."  ...Scary girl.

--  When Temple and Maury stop at the gate of Belle Isle, the manservant/butler comes out to speak to them... Temple rather presumptuously invites herself inside: "...How about lettin us come in and get some rest?  We're just travelin through, and it looks like you got some hospitality to spare."  The servant politely replies that this is a private residence.  Temple's having none of that: "Private residence?  Where you from anyway?  ... There ain't no private residences anymore, mister.  There's just places where slugs are and places where they ain't."  ...This does nothing to endear Temple to me.  Look, honey, it may be the zombie-apocalypse and all, but maybe you ought to take a lesson in manners and diplomacy.  ...And no such thing as a private residence?  There's no way you'd be getting in my house after that.  Heels, dug in.  Umbrage, taken. 

--  There are plenty of gaps in our understanding of this version of the world.  For example, who's keeping the electricity going (in places)? 

--  Am I bothered by Temple's habit of calling Maury "dummy", before she knows his name?  Well, I don't love it, but I don't think it's intended to be mean-spirited.

--  As soon as we read that "their poor father isn't well at the moment", there might as well be a big sign in flashing lights, reading "He's a zombie"...

--  There was a momentarily confusing typo-- "Mrs. Grierson and her son look at her", when surely it should be "grandson" (because, yep, her son is zombie-ing around in the basement).  All said, though, there were very few typos or errors of that kind.

--  Somehow Temple knows that she "can't have babies", but we never learn how she knows that, or what happened to prevent it.

--  Ok.  The whole Moses Todd storyline.  ...I guess we're not supposed to overthink it, because it's simply crucial that these characters should behave as they do, for the story to flow to its eventual conclusion.  But.  I'm not good at letting these things go.

Moses chases Temple down and tells her that he intends to kill her in revenge for the death of his brother (the wicked Abraham).  Temple of course explains that Abraham had been threatening her, but Moses has already guessed as much-- and it doesn't change his perspective:  "That boy was my flesh and blood, idiot or no.  Yeah, he wasn't a good man.  But that don't make no difference.  And you know it."  *eyeroll* ...I guess there are (still) people like that, but... I just find them hard to believe.  You know your brother was a good-for-nothing abuser and you still blame this girl for killing him in self-defense?  To the point that you'd kill her for revenge?  I don't get that level of blind family loyalty.  I love my family, but if I knew that a sibling had died as a result of trying to hurt someone else, unprovoked, I couldn't blame the other person for fighting back. 

...I think the problem is that Moses seems reasonable in so many ways.  He's not an evil person.  He intends to take Millie back to her people (um, before he kills her in a fit of vengeful rage), and he takes over the care of Maury for Temple's sake.  And yet in this one area of his life, he's just insane.  He knows his brother was asking for something bad to happen to him-- he grows fond of Temple, admires her-- but he can't just let it go and move on with his life...   It is frustrating.

Similarly, I'm frustrated by Temple's unwillingness to... "do away with" Moses, once it becomes clear that he's obsessed with killing her.  Maybe it's noble of her to refuse to kill him when he's bound to a chair, but... the man is promising to come after her and finish her off!  "You ain't done nothing to me," she says, to which he replies, "Not yet.  But I give you another guarantee-- my word as a man under the gray heaven of death.  The next time I see you, I sure am gonna kill you."

Of course, it turns out that because she refuses to kill Moses at that moment, he's alive later to save her from another enemy.  (Because that's how these things usually turn out.)  And then when she and Maury are escaping from this new mutual enemy, she leaves Moses behind in his prison cell-- but not before slipping him a weapon so he'll have a fighting chance.  And again, all this as he's still promising to kill her as soon as he can.  (Argh!)

In the end, though Moses doesn't strike the fatal blow, he might as well have.  Millie kills Temple, and Millie wouldn't have been there if Moses hadn't brought her along.  And Temple wouldn't have run out into Millie's line of fire if she hadn't been fleeing Moses, trying to draw him away from Maury.

It feels like we're supposed to respect Temple's integrity, but instead, I find the whole situation difficult to believe.  I guess I'm a worse person than Temple, because I think I'd have killed Moses, if he insisted that he would (eventually) kill me if I didn't kill him first.

--  The mutant hillbilly section of the book was... odd.  It doesn't make much sense.  Seems like it was put in just to add another layer of horror and to give Moses a chance to (temporarily) save Temple-- and for Temple to go into "psycho kill mode", followed by giving Moses another chance to escape and come after her.  (~grumble~)  Anyway, it was weird.  When I say that it felt too far-fetched and science-fictional to fit smoothly into a zombie novel, I hope I make my point.

--  Temple and Maury share a boxcar with some refugees who are "huddled and helpless", looking at her "through eyes that seem to predict death".  "Temple hates them instinctively."  She may be right, but it doesn't make her very sympathetic to the reader. 

...And I guess that's about it.  I wanted a happy ending for Temple, just on principle, but in the end, I still didn't get that painful lump in my throat that I never fail to get for Old Dan and Little Ann (Where the Red Fern Grows).  Temple holds everyone out at arm's length, and it's hard to be emotionally invested in a character like that.