Pretty much every zombie story I've ever watched or read is set when zombies are new. People from our civilization, people just like us, contending with this new scourge. What's so interesting about both Carrie Ryan's Forest of Hands and Teeth, and its sequel (or as she calls it, it's companion novel) The Dead-Tossed Waves, is that her characters and their families have lived with zombies for generations. They are a fact of the world they live in as much as car accidents or muggings are in ours.
As in her first book, Ryan's imagining of this post-industrial, decimated United States is one of the best things about it. Waves is set some 30 years or so after the end of the previous novel, and we follow Gabrielle (or Gabry), Mary - the protagonist from Forest's daughter. She has grown up in a lighthouse in a small community next to a decaying amusement park. All the towns are walled, to keep out the undead, much as towns in medieval times were (but they had fewer zombies). The tone is elegiac, as people's lives are almost unbearably hard. Everyone looks back to the time before "The Return" (i.e. the zombie apocalypse), but without technology, the books, the science, all of it is being forgotten. This is Ryan at her strongest. What I found a little less compelling was the romance. As in her first book, there is a tragic love triangle. The relationship that springs up between Gabry and one of the young men in the story seemed overly telegraphed. The whole thing seemed kind of rote.
One thing I liked about both of Ryan's books was that her heroines in each were so flawed, and problematic. Gabry isn't the most admirable teenager. By the book's end she's a murderer, and the fact of that wasn't really satisfactorily dealt with. The murder made sense for what we had learned about Gabry, who wasn't painted as the strongest character. But it was never discussed. No one in the book ever suggested to her that maybe she could have had another choice. There is obviously going to be another installment, so I hope the matter isn't dropped. Ryan is a good writer, but this entry in her saga took a while to get cooking, I feel as another draft may have been a good idea. I also kept on thinking about what a friend of mine said once about Twilight on facebook: that for all its problems, it does romance really, really well, when in most YA books the obligatory romance usually seems a little forced.
Catching Fire is Suzanne Ryan's second entry in her Hunger Games Trilogy (the next book is due out this summer), and as with her first, the thing is like crack cocaine. Unless you have a much stronger fiction reading constitution than I do, you will be up late finishing it. It picks up where the first book leaves off, with Katniss Everdeen having won the vicious games (for a description, go to my last blog post - the link is above). Her win and its circumstances has helped foment dissent in Panem (the post-apocalyptic country that used to be the United States), and the government is responding the way dictatorships usually respond to imminent revolution - with brutality.
I loved this book. Collins writes popular fiction the way it should be done - clearly, intelligently, and grippingly. Unlike Dan Brown and his ilk, she can write. I found the love triangle in the first book to be somewhat irksome, but in this one I had no problem with it. Katness has been put in an untenable situation. She is being pulled and manipulated by President Snow and his government, by the media (government run), by the burgeoning revolutionary forces who see her as a symbol of their cause, by her neighbors who mostly want to keep their heads down and to work and not starve. Her romantic life has lost all sense of authenticity, as part of her popular "character" (think in terms of reality television) is the romance with her fellow Hunger Games contestant, Peeta, which started off as a lie, but there may be real feelings there, but there has been so much dissembling at this point, no sane person would be able to see their way clearly. This is complicated stuff for a book aimed at 14 year olds.
Collins has created a real-seeming, tough world. Very bad things happen to people we like. When the government cracks down, it is like the Soviet Union under Stalin. There is no reality, only "reality". People inform on each other, no one trusts that the phones or their homes aren't bugged. As the book ends, true revolution has begun and I'm extremely curious to see what will happen. The government Collins has invented is a nightmare, but she's smart enough to make Katniss suspicious of the revolutionary forces who hold her natural sympathies. They act with the expedience and disregard for individual life that is endemic in revolutions. This isn't Luke and friends defeating the Empire, for which Collins should be commended. I think her books might actually be kind of great. Katniss is a terrific hero, in the great tradition of heroes: she's reluctant to be one. I also love that her toughness and resilience comes from the life she's led: not from special training, or magic skills, or the kiss of a good witch. She's a good hunter because she was brutally poor and her father was dead. She's tough because if she wasn't she wouldn't have survived the famine and poverty of her mining town. The only fault I found with the book, was the one that is endemic to middle books in trilogies - there is a lot of dealing with the repercussions of book one and leading into the final conflicts of book three. That said, even with another round of Hunger Games, I didn't find it to be particularly repetitive, and am avidly looking forward to the next installment.
Mockingjay - book #3 - is out on August 24.