Wednesday, 21 April 2010

‘The Reapers are the Angels’ – Alden Bell (Tor UK)

Every so often a book will just come out of nowhere, grab you right by the brain and whisk you away into its world for a journey that you’ll never forget. If you’re picking up a book by a favourite author then you might have a little prior warning that this is about to happen. The best times though are when it’s a book that offers you no warning as to how great it’s going to be. You pick it up, read a few pages and then... BANG! The next thing you know, you’re a couple of hundred pages in and you don’t know where the afternoon has got to.
Now, it’s a well known and established fact that if a book has zombies in it then I’m halfway towards enjoying it before I’ve even started reading. That’s just the way it is. When I realised that ‘The Reapers’ was a zombie book then I knew I was going to have a good time with it. What I didn’t realise though was just how good a time it was going to be. ‘The Reapers are the Angels’ is something really special...

‘God is a slick God. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe...’

In a world where the undead crowd every horizon, and the remnants of humanity can sometimes be less than human, there is still room for miracles and some kind of redemption. Temple cannot remember the world as it was before, all she knows is the zombie infested landscape that it is now. The world is still a beautiful place but it’s a hard place too and a person must do hard things in order to survive, Temple has done her share of hard things and has made enemies on the road behind her.
But now she has a shot at some kind of redemption. Maury is perhaps the only truly innocent person left in America and he is all on his own with no hope of survival. If Temple can help him reach relatives in Texas then perhaps she can balance the scales out a little bit. Life is never that simple though. Temple’s past isn’t just catching up with her; it’s actively chasing her along the highways of a ruined America. Will one man with revenge on his mind ruin all her plans...?

In any good zombie tale, the zombies themselves are almost incidental to the plot. What it’s really all about is how the human survivors adapt to their situation and what they are prepared to do to survive. The problem that you come across most times is that you never get the time to see the characters develop; fair enough really as zombie onslaughts tend to happen very quickly and survivors generally end up becoming zombie food in no short order.
Bell sidesteps this issue by setting his tale several years after the zombie apocalypse and this means that it’s not just all about the struggle for survival. We can now see what years of living like this can do to a person and such people are skilled enough at survival to be able to have the time to reflect on what they have become. This is very much the case with Temple and this approach gives us a really clear and deep look into a character who has spent her whole life surviving however she can.

Temple is a young girl with a clear sense of right and wrong that frequently comes into conflict with the things that she must do to make it through another day. The end result is a tortured character who prefers her own company and doesn’t trust people. When she’s around people, bad things invariably happen; a lesson that Temple has learnt the hard way. It’s saddening to see how Temple’s isolation has turned her against herself as she blames herself for things that an adult might be able to lend a little more perspective on. Or is this a case of a new world bringing a new moral code into being and Temple is right to blame herself? This was a question that kept me thinking about an answer the whole way through the book.

It’s interesting to see that the only person who really understands Temple is the man who is out to kill her and this creates a really interesting dynamic between the pair. Moses Todd understands Temple and he even understands why she had to do what she did. It was what she did though that has made him promise to kill her and it’s all the more poignant that a relationship between two such similar people is defined by such a promise. I thought I could see how it was going to end but Bell managed to really surprise me right at the very death! I never saw that one coming at all...

Temple’s mean streak gets her out of trouble just as easily as it lands her in it but there is also a gentle side to her nature which drives the plot forward in all the ways that really matter.
It’s the quiet reflective moments where Bell shows us that even in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse the world can still be a beautiful place full of little miracles like the fish in the sea by the lighthouse (right at the beginning of the book). It’s almost like Bell is telling us that zombies are such a slow moving threat that we’ve got time to smell the roses if we really want to! A zombie apocalypse definitely does not mean clouds of smoke and burning buildings...
The defining moment of the book is Temple’s taking on Maury and trying to help him find a home, all down to a pang on conscience on her part. Maury doesn’t talk at all, and barely interacts with anyone, so Temple’s relationship with him is very one sided. The important thing though is that, in one or two paragraphs, Temple’s survival in a zombie infested world becomes her trying to make certain that her own humanity survives as well. It’s a move that adds a hell of a lot more depth to what originally looks like it could end up being just another zombie story.

The story itself flows at a decent pace, certainly a pace that is in keeping with the demands of the plot and it has a welcome habit of surprising you when you least expect it. Bell’s vision of a fractured humanity sheltering from a zombie menace is also richly drawn and is incredibly easy to get into. For every ‘normal’ community sheltering in a city there is a family like the Grierson’s to remind you that an event such as this can leave people irrevocably messed up, even though they may look like they’re living a normal life. Bell’s ‘post zombie America’ is a land where I was more than happy to spend time and a little bit sad to leave.

‘The Reapers are the Angels’ is a beautiful read and one that is thoroughly worth looking out for if you’re a fan of zombie fiction. It won’t be published until September in the UK (August in the US) so right now it’s the best zombie novel that you haven’t read yet. I expect all that to change though when you do...

Ten out of Ten


Yagiz [Between Two Books] said...

Wow! I received my copy of "The Reapers are the Angels" a few days ago. Sounds like it's going to find itself at the top of my TBR pile.

Thanks for the review Graeme!

Graeme Flory said...

I loved it, definitely worth a look :o)

The Doctor said...

Sounds great! I'll have to pre-order.

Kahless said...

Recieved a copy today and had a quick flick through. No punctuation when the characters are speaking! Should be interesting.