Alden Bell’s The Reapers Are The Angels, published by my overlords at Tor UK. Bell has written literary fiction under another name, but this is his genre debut. It’s a post-apocalyptic zombie novel, where the zombies aren’t central to the narrative. Think Cormac McCarthy (the prose really does channel this particular style – even down to the punctuation, such as a lack of quotation marks), and which taxonomically branches off from I Am Legend. Focussing on a young girl called Temple, the narrative follows her arduous road trip across a future USA, a deeply disturbing setting, and one which offers more questions than resolution. Because of these qualities, do not go looking for pulp entertainment: that isn’t to be found here, and Bell neatly bypasses all the zombie uprising froth. Instead he presents us with a connection of haunting images years after the shit has hit the fan, each scene revealing a little more about the world, but never too much to explain it all away.
The prose is marvellous, full of acute observations:
He looks like someone who could slap you or kiss you and you wouldn’t be able to tell which one is coming and it would mean the same thing either way.
And wonderful, heady descriptions:
The next city she comes to is a big one, growing up around her like something organic. Thick with overgrowth, it has reverted to wilderness and old times under the shadowed canopy of spindly oaks. The trees grow beards of Spanish moss that hang nearly to the ground and float their ancient white tails in the breeze. Spreading out from the main avenues like twigs from branches, the broken asphalt roads give way to brick lanes, brittle barbeque shacks with torn screen doors and collapsing roofs tucked into alleyways behind big white colonials hidden behind gates of thick ivy, which, in turn, are secreted behind the commercial districts of block stores and low-stacked parking garages.
Temple is a loner for the most part, and even when she pairs up it’s with a mentally ill man, Maury, so we see much of her thoughts projected onto him – a clever move that maintains, possibly even heightens, her sense of isolation. She’s tough – self-sufficient and with a truly lethal edge – but her companionship with Maury betrays her stubborn streak of warmth and compassion. It’s her care of Maury, her quest for his return to safety, which is the subtle narrative drive. For the most part of this journey (a road trip: an American icon), Temple is being hunted across this desolated landscape by Moses Todd, who often catches up with her only for Temple to escape, and we see her at her most human when she is in dialogue with her enemy.
Oh, the zombies. Yeah, they’re there – but as I said, they’re not the stars. The ‘slugs’ are background music for this often horrific landscape, present for a quiet juxtaposition. Because this is a novel of humanity stripped of any humanity, of the raw limits of existence; it’s a flux of dreamy and bleak images, a blurring of the lines between being a human and an animal. And I loved every word of it.
I saw a pretty abysmal review of this in SciFi Now, where the novel was handed to a poor reviewer who gradually betrayed their hope that it would have been something else entirely, instead of exploring the details presented within this text. I wouldn’t like this book to be dismissed so simply, and though I’ve not really championed many current novels (it all feels a little new and awkward for me if I’m honest), I will certainly rally behind this one.
I’m slowly working my way through many of the Fantasy Masterworks range, and next up was The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld, by Patricia A. McKillip.
Sybel is a woman cut off from the world of Eldwold, and lives in a woodland glade in the mountains, more or less in isolation. But she doesn’t quite live alone: she can communicate telepathically with animals, and has the ability to reach out to their souls. Though it sounds a little twee, I was utterly charmed at this point – it was very well rendered and evocative. A man called Coren, arrives at her cottage and leaves her with a baby, which she is to look after – Tamlorn, the son of a king, and of a queen who has died. If not loved then the child will be found and killed.
A decade or so later, Coren returns for Tamlorn, and Sybel is more than reluctant to hand him over, since she is convinced that he’ll be used as a political weapon. But she gives him up eventually. Numerous chaps arrive at her door, the king, and also Coren, who are both so wrapped up in her beauty, and we’re generally led to believe all men are incredibly stupid and horrible (and throughout the novel, this is almost to the point of misandry). I reflected on this point quite a bit; then I realised women had been so badly treated by male writers for decades – and still do – so this is probably what it feels like. If that was McKillip’s point, which I’m inclined to think it was, then touché, it was bang on the money.
It kind of fell apart a bit at the end, but all in all, it’s a smart, charming rural fantasy.
I just finished reading Forgotten Beasts of Eld as well – and had pretty much the same impression of it as you. I liked it very much in a sort of ‘first feminist fantasy you give to empower young girls’ kind of way. 🙂
I’m glad it wasn’t just me. And yes, that’s a good thing, really. These things have to start somewhere.
I absolutely loved The Reapers are the Angels. I went in with no expectations at all, knew very little about it and thought it was a totally astonishing and remarkable novel. It explores similar themes to The Walking Dead, where the undead or slugs are just background shapes in some ways, a threat at the corner of your eye, but really it’s about humanity in all its glory and horror. Fantastic stuff.
Glad you enjoyed Reapers – a wonderful book. I was bemused by the review in SciFi Now; I failed to see how the reviewer drew the conclusion that it was a generic zombie novel, when it clearly isn’t.
Might be worth mentioning that McKillip deservedly won the World Fantasy Award with this novel, and has continued to produce some of the finest fantasy novels in modern times.
There are some works which I consider sui generis in style and content – Finney’s TIME & AGAIN, Troman’s THE DEVIL’S DOWRY, Barr’s SPACE RELATIONS, Moorcock’s WARHOUND AND THE WORLD’S PAIN, Cooper’s CLOUD WALKER, Anderson’s MIDSUMMER TEMPEST, Brunner’s TRAVELLER IN BLACK, Price’s THE DEVIL-WIVES OF LI FONG, Morris’s THE WATER OF THE WONDROUS ISLES… and McKillip’s FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD.
Luckily, taste is a personal thing.