The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden BellYou've got to love a book that starts with the most famous quote from Pet Semataryby S. King: "Sometimes dead is better."
ZPAA ratingTeen and up
Gore level5 out of 10--The protagonist's favorite weapon is a Gurkha knife called at khukuri (or its variant spelling as kukri), so there's a lot of mashing and slashing with that, along with assorted other zombie killings. Plus, the zombies do need some sort of brain damage to ensure no more activity, so there's extra blows inflicted quite often. Some grotesquely over-sized and under-fleshed humans perform unsavory surgeries.
Other offensive contentThe typical assorted bad language and attitudes; one attempted rape and one fairly graphic consensual non-marital sex scene (other scenes are just alluded to); a punch to the crotch; the main character can't decide if she's good or evil; lack of quotation marks around direct quotes.
How much zombie mythology/contentThe numerous zombies (also called "meatskins" and "slugs") are slow-moving, flesh-eating, needs-brain-damage-to-kill-them types, though people seem to come back from death as zombies without being bitten or otherwise infected. The story is set about twenty-five years after the zombies rise and only hints at their origins.
How much funFor a book set in a squalid, run-down zombie apocalypse, many moments of beauty and grace are found by Temple, a fifteen-year old girl searching for safety and solace. These moments help to alleviate the bleak oppressiveness of the world in which they live. She has a certain wisdom tinged with melancholy. She wrestles with whether or not she is a good person, as do other characters. What to do with people and how to treat them (as living and as undead) are also mulled over, which I find very interesting.
Synopsis & ReviewThe Reapers Are the Angels follows the life of Temple, a fifteen year old girl trying to live out her life in a world overrun with zombies. She is mostly a loner though she accepts the company of others and winds up traveling with a companion for a good part of the book. "Loner" is probably the wrong word. She is a searcher, looking for moments of beauty and for understanding of the world (though she already seems to have insight into the world and its ways). She believes in God and in a moral code but struggles with determining the right thing to do and freeing herself from the past evils that have scarred her. She experiences the "crackerjack miracles" God uses to show the world is not abandoned, hope is not lost, joy is not a thing of the past. Her blend of optimism and pessimism are compelling, even more than her spunkiness (only in the best sense) and her mad skills at zombie kills.
This story begins with her living alone in a lighthouse on an island a couple hundred yards off the coast of Florida. She enjoys a simple life and experiences the miraculous beauty God gives, a school of fish lit up like electricity on a moonlit night. The next day she discovers a smashed up zombie on the beach. The waters are getting lower as time goes on and it won't be long before the island is easily accessible from the main land. So she sets off in search of a new haven, or at least new adventures and miracles. She has a vague plan of seeing famous sights across the United States (mostly Niagara Falls). As she runs into different groups of survivors, they keep bouncing her off in different directions, paths she hadn't planned on but that she does choose (sometimes reluctantly). The world is well imagined. She runs into a great variety of people and monsters, giving the author the opportunity to reveal more of Temple's character, the world around her, and how she struggles to find her place.
This book has a very similar feel to The Roadby Cormac McCarthy, describing a journey of discovery and self-discovery through an apocalyptic American landscape. The main characters wander through byways and people's lives with a bigger goal in mind. Some people are good and some are evil, and the protagonists of both stories struggle with which categories they belong in. But the similarity ends quickly. The Road is pretty bleak and unrelenting; this book has moments of grace and joy throughout. God is quite absent in The Road where His fingers seem to be all over the place in The Reapers Are the Angels. The son has some optimism and hope which his father tries his utmost to protect, though he himself seems only to live for his son. Temple has her dark past but also hopes and dreams for the future, even in a landscape of fallen infrastructure and the risen dead. Even though they are similar, a more profound note of hope sounds throughout The Reapers Are the Angels.
Another difference is the writing style. Alden Bell writes in the present tense and uses no quotation marks, which is unusual but easy enough to follow. McCarthy uses the past tense and almost no punctuation other than periods and the extremely rare comma. Being a little fastidious, I found McCarthy's style to be a little too affected (are we to assume his apocalypse destroyed not only all vegetation but also proper punctuation?) and was constantly wishing his editor had more of a backbone. It never seemed natural or fitting to the story. I suppose I could have saved myself by listening to it as an audio book. But I digress too far, I am reviewing Bell's book. Thanks for letting me get my gripe with McCarthy off my chest.
As a bonus, check out a great discussion of The Reapers at A Good Story Is Hard to Find.
Sample TextI had a hard time finding a concise bit of text to give a flavor of the book, so instead of some tidbit from the middle, I'll give you the opening which is quite vivid and a perfect start:
God is a slick god. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.
Like those fish all disco-lit in the shallows. That was something, a marvel with no compare that she's been witness to. It was deep night when she saw it, but the moon was so bright it cast hard shadows everywhere on the island. So bright it was almost brighter than daytime because she could see things clearer, as if the sun were criminal to the truth, as if her eyes were eyes of night. She left the lighthouse and went down to the beach to look at the moon pure and straight, and she stood in the shallows and let her feet sink into the sand as the patter-waves tickled her ankles. And that's when she saw it, a school of tiny fish, all darting around like marbles in a chalk circle, and they were lit up electric, mostly silver but some gold and pink too. They came and danced around her ankles, and she could feel their little electric fish bodies, and it was like she was standing under the moon and in the moon at the same time. And that was something she hadn't seen before. A decade and a half, thereabouts, roaming the planet earth, and she's never seen that before.
And you could say the world has gone to black damnation, and you could say the children of Cain are holding sway over the good and the righteous--but here's what Temple knows: She knows that whatever hell the world went to and whatever evil she's perpetrated her own self, and whatever series of cursed misfortunes brought her down here to this island to be harbored away from the order of mankind, well, all those things are what put her there that night to stand amid the Daylight Moon and the Miracle of the Fish--which she wouldn't of got to see otherwise.
See, God is a slick god. He makes it so you don't miss out on nothing you're suppose to witness firsthand.
One commenter asked about my opinion of The Reapers Are The Angels, since I got a little lost in saying how The Road compares unfavorably to the book. I did enjoy it quite a bit and highly recommend Alden Bell's southern gothic zombie novel.