Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Reapers Are The Angels - Alden Bell

This book is many things at once: a character study, a journey novel, a post apocalyptic adventure. The last of these is probably the best place to start. The text is set in an America a generation after a Night of the Living Dead-style event; Cities are shattered. Government is non-existent. Hordes of the dead are roaming the earth in a cannibalistic frenzy. Uninfected survivors are holed up in fortified enclaves, or travelling (carefully) between them. The setting is familiar, the timing less so - the portrayal of younger characters who have known nothing but this shattered world is well done, and the older characters memories of a kinder world are delicately dropped into the context around them - emphasising the state of the remnants in which they now find themselves.

However, this is not Resident Evil style novel, full of characters lurching from one danger to another, constantly in danger of being devoured. Rather than making the infected threat explicit, they are typically used as background, to ground the actions of characters in this new world. While the rise of the infected has created a new form of society, they are shown in the text more as a fact of life (like hurricanes, or flash floods), an unreasoning force which must be dealt with, rather than a vibrant, close range threat. This is not a novel where the heroic female protagonist saves the earth from a zombie horde, or even escapes from it. The time period forces us into a new mould, where the characters must integrate the reality of infected into their lives, and societies.

In another way, this text is a journey novel. Specifically, it follows the travels of a young woman named Temple, as she attempts to escape a pursuer with murder in mind. Whilst the pursuit itself is interesting and tense enough, the real colour here comes from the characters and situations that Temple encounters as she travels across this more desolate America. Rich survivors, holed up in a compound with electric fences and dark secrets, bizarre mutants, a fortified train...each is marvellously portrayed, and helps draw the reader into this unique world. Rather than "World War Z", the text puts me in mind of Steinbeck, particularly "The Grapes of Wrath", and "Of Mice and Men". It isn't plot driven per se, but sets out to show the reader a world, and the characters and ways of life embedded within that world. The journey is clever, the settings excellent; the characters are believable, and, to some degree, disturbing. In each case, they are very well portrayed.

Finally, this can be seen as a character piece, a study of the interactions between Temple, a girl who is never entirely sure who she is, and her companions and nemeses. I won't go into detail here, for fear of spoiling the plot, but will say that Temple's struggles with her past are excellent, her actions and reactions drawn from a central character which is consistently and marvellously portrayed. The text is written in her voice, laconic, sharp, effective - a narrative which, in its structure, emphasises the character it surrounds.
To summarise, this is an excellent book. A character study where the characters are believable, if perhaps not always sympathetic, a journey novel where the travel - both internal and external - and setting are excellently portrayed; a post apocalyptic adventure with enough zombies for anybody - though perhaps not occupying the same position in the text as they do in books like "I Am Legend".

This book sets out to do a great many things, and does them all well. I was drawn in and wrung out by it, and enjoyed it immensely. Well worth it.

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