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Book Review: The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell

Title: The Reapers are the Angels

Author: Alden Bell

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic, Zombies, Speculative Fiction, Horror

Publisher: Holt Paperbacks
Publication Date: August 2010
Paperback: 240 Pages

Zombies have infested a fallen America. A young girl named Temple is on the run. Haunted by her past and pursued by a killer, Temple is surrounded by death and danger, hoping to be set free.

For twenty-five years, civilization has survived in meager enclaves, guarded against a plague of the dead. 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 on a personal journey toward 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.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher

Why did I read this book: The synopsis has “Thea” written all over it: zombies, a post-apocalyptic landscape, the frailty of society, journey to redemption, all that jazz. With comparisons being thrown around to Justin Cronin’s The Passage (still my favorite read of 2010, I think!), of course I had to try this book.

Review:

For over two decades, the world has been ravaged by the zombie plague. The dead have come back to life and have claimed the planet for their own, devouring any meat in their path. Fifteen-year old Temple has only known this world of solitude and death, but has been able to take care of herself. Unlike the people she occasionally meets holed up in enclaves across the country, Temple is a drifter and a loner, with no nostalgia for days gone by. To Temple, older survivors’ nostalgia for fanciful things like picnics and playgrounds seems as intangible as a dream, and just as practical. While other survivors band together and cling to the illusion of the past, Temple sees the world as hers for the taking – armed with her sharp ghurka knife, she’s fast enough and adept enough at dodging the shambling slugs, and strong enough to protect herself from the people that she encounters.

When Temple comes across a group of survivors in a deserted city, she is immediately taken in by the community and fussed over. But, when one of the men tries to take advantage of her, Temple is forced to kill him and flee – with the murdered man’s deadly brother, named Moses Todd, hot in pursuit. As Temple travels further northwards, trying to shake the violent and vengeful Moses Todd, she comes across a mute mentally challenged man chased by a group of slugs. Conflicted and haunted by her own past mistakes, Temple assumes responsibility for Maury, and has a new goal. As Moses Todd closes in on her trail, Temple tries to find Maury a new, safe home, and comes to grips with her own personal demons.

I’ve had The Reapers are the Angels in my sights for a good while, but for various reasons, kept putting off actually cracking open the book. Touted as this year’s zombie version of Justin Cronin’s immensely hyped and successful The Passage, I had been a little leery of this new title (not to mention the fact that the last few zombie titles I’ve read and watched have been pretty bad). But then, something happened. The Walking Dead premiered on AMC, and it was fantastic. And just like that, my zombie passion was ignited once again. What better way to indulge my hunger for rotting corpses than to finally dust The Reapers are the Angels from my TBR?

And wouldn’t you know it? Once I started the book I could not put it down – I devoured it in a single night. While it isn’t a perfect or original book by any stretch of the imagination, The Reapers are the Angels is a solid, contemplative zombie novel that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The strongest assets The Reapers are the Angels has are in its characterizations and evocative writing style. This is Temple’s story, and over the course of the novel, we see how she has come to be the strange, isolated, strong-yet-fucked-up little girl that she is. Her journey is one of atonement for past sins, of catharsis. One thing that Mr. Bell captures brillaintly with his sparse prose is the otherness of Temple – as she’s never lived in the world as we know it, her emotions, decisions, and perceptions are incredibly different from anything we know. And that is really cool stuff. In terms of writing, Mr. Bell’s style has a lyrical quality, and, with its lack of punctuation The Reapers are the Angels is reminiscent (in a very crude way) of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road. Comparisons aside (because really, Alden Bell is no Cormac McCarthy), the sparse prose lent a wonderfully atmospheric, elegiac tone to the novel and its fatalistic themes.

Although, it should be noted that The Reapers are the Angels is by no means original – in fact, it is flat-out derivative. Though the general direction of the plot is handled well and the underlying conflict is powerful with Moses Todd’s chase of Temple across the ravaged Southern United States, the chase itself (with both parties unable to stop or back down) is an old tale. Ultimately, The Reapers are the Angels is an entertaining book and a solid read, but it’s also lacks the breadth and depth of the books that it borrows from. It lacks the urgency and ingenuity of Matheson’s I am Legend and Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, the effortless grace and abject horror of McCarthy’s The Road. In comparison to its main competitor, Reapers falls short of the epic scale and alternating action and introspection of Cronin’s The Passage. While The Reapers are the Angels is well-written and evocative, it falls short of these yardsticks – and it has a few other notable issues to boot. From a writing perspective, there were aspects that sat strangely with me. Temple’s accent and voice, as well as certain “poetic” turns of phrases struck me as odd. While at some points Temple’s accent felt forced and caricaturish (liberal usage of “doggone it”s, for example), at other points, there would be a strange break in character with narrated phrases such as the following:

Moses isn’t interested in talking. He sits at the bar and drinks and looks straight ahead like he can see through to the ugly other side of everything. He’s no man to be dallied with, she knows. She’s seen men like him before, dangerous because they’ve already come back from places these other, convival men have never been, and the souvenirs they bring back form those places exist everywhere in them, in their wet ruddy eyes and under their fingernails and in the dark patina on their very skin.

The girl that speaks in the crudest slang and can barely read thinks in terms like “convival” and “patina”? It doesn’t quite add up. There also is a good deal of repetition to the book, in an attempt at overt symbolism (e.g. the image of Niagara Falls, again and again and again), which felt forced and lacking in some much needed subtlety. And, on a personal nitpicky note, why is there ALWAYS a hillbilly scene in these books? Not that it wasn’t interesting or entertaining, but I’m always waiting for the inbred gone-cannibal hillbillies to roll around in a survival/horror book, movie, or game.

These complaints, however, are largely subjective. And despite these detractors, I still enjoyed The Reapers are the Angels immensely. Certainly recommended for the thinking horror fan – and I’ll be back to see what Mr. Bell comes up with in the future.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter One:

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 supposed to witness firsthand.

You can read the full excerpt online HERE.

Additional Thoughts: A title that inevitably comes up when mentioning The Reapers are the Angels is of course 2010 release The Passage by Justin Cronin.

As I’ve said before, this is still most likely my favorite read of 2010 (at least it is thus far!), and I highly recommend fans of this book to give it a try. Don’t let the length frighten you! It’s good length. Seriously.

Rating: 7 – Very Good

Reading Next: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

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5 Comments

  • katiebabs
    November 10, 2010 at 4:50 am

    Thea, I’ve read this one and it didn’t work for me. I think the writing threw me off and I couldn’t stand the heroine. A few readers have said it is much like The Road, which I want to read, but I have a feeling I may not get into it because of the writing structure used.

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  • Ahmed
    January 15, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    I have to say, I loved this book. I loved how it started and It shocked me how it ended. When I finished the book I was like ‘ What the f**k just happened?’. I just finished reading ‘Not a drop to drink’. And it reminded me of this . Thats way I came here.

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