A few months back posters of syringes behind my local Waterstones counter got me all excited about The Passage by Justin Cronin, a post-apocalyptic saga involving zombies or “Virals” that was compared to King’s The Stand, highlighted by the likes of The New York Times and bought for a gizallion gillion million dollars by one of the dozens of publishing houses who fought for the rights, and the Hollywood studio who swooped in soon afterwards to secure the movie rights.
(Okay, so that paragraph may have contained a little exaggeration…)
This week I read The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell which, on the face of it, seems to be about exactly the same thing.
“God is a slick god. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe… For twenty-five years, civilization has survived in meager enclaves, guarded against a plague of the dead. A young woman named 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 off on her personal journey towards 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. A powerful story of survival and self-discovery, The Reapers are the Angels is terrifying, atmospheric, and gripping, from its haunting opening all the way to its shocking conclusion.”
So… zombies? Check! A post-apocalyptic America? Check! A teenage girl who is more than she appears to be? Check! A million dollar advance, film deal and international publicity push? Um… well, no. Not even close. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of this book until the publisher offered me a review copy. And luckily for readers of The Reapers of the Angels, the dissimilarities between it and The Passage don’t end there.
Because Reapers isn’t your average post-zombie apocalypse book. Far from it. It reads more like a gothic literary novel than a futuristic thriller (it reminded me of McCarthy’s The Road in places), its main character, Temple, is deeply spiritual, and instead of doing a mediocre job of spanning hundreds of years (and pages), its slim form does an excellent job of spanning just a few days. The introduction of only a few characters leaves Bell plenty of room for development, and I know the character of Temple will linger with me for the coming days.
Throughout The Passage I was constantly yanked out of the narrative by things that didn’t ring true in the fictional world Cronin had created; with Reapers I had no such problem, because everything fits. Even the zombies themselves are more realistic: instead of vampire-like, cheeta-fast attackers, they amble and stumble – they are dead after all. (Is there such a thing as realistic zombies? Discuss.) The country is overrun with these “slugs” but humans can live among them because like, say, elderly grizzly bears, as long as you stay well out of their way, keep moving and avoid antagonizing them, you can stay safe.
And – crucially – there isn’t a boring chunk of pages in the middle. There isn’t even a boring paragraph. I picked this up one night when I couldn’t sleep, intended to read a few pages, and had to force myself to stop reading half way through. Not that it helped me with the not sleeping: this book is terrifying, as the threat of getting eaten alive by zombies should be. Bell doesn’t hold back on the details, and some of them made me glad I wasn’t reading this over my dinner, let me tell you.
I can only hope that Bell will get to piggyback Cronin’s publicity, and Reapers will reach the huge audience it deserves.
I highly recommend it.
Thanks to Henry Holt & Co for the review copy.