The Reapers are the Angels
By Alden Bell
(Tor, 3 September 2010)
One of the most pleasing things as a book reviewer is to find a novel that spectacularly demolishes your expectations - especially when it seemingly comes out of nowhere with no hype attached to it. I had a strange feeling about The Reapers are the Angels from the minute I pulled it out of the padded envelope; there was just something enticing about it, though even now I'm not quite sure what it was. Perhaps it was the moody artwork (presented in a much darker tone to the one shown above), though I doubt it. Perhaps it was the style of the prose that I glanced over. Maybe it just connected with my like of post-apocalyptic fiction. Whatever. I just knew that I had to read this book as soon as possible.
So I did, and was rewarded with what will surely be one of this year's best genre releases.
Post-apocalyptic novels full of zombies are a dime a dozen, and it takes something special to truly stand out in this sub-genre (special like World War Z). But the best books are often those that attempt to take a familiar formula and inject a little bit of ingenuity into it in order to freshen it up. This is what The Reapers are the Angels does very well indeed.
Rather than focusing on the zombie outbreak and the sudden collapsing of civilisation, the story starts some twenty-five years after the zombie ("meatskin") uprising, in a world where humanity has been brought to its knees and yet somehow still holds out. More importantly, the main protagonist - a young woman by the name of Temple - was born after society collapsed. This bleak, ravaged world is all that she knows - and this lends a very interesting perspective to her character.
Temple makes for an excellent protagonist. Haunted by some hidden horrors from her past, she's fighting a constant battle against the evil that she is convinced lurks in her soul. She's more afraid of herself than she is of the walking dead, and this self-loathing and introverted anxiety causes her to shun the remnants of society - she's a wanderer, a wayfarer that seeks her own company almost like some sort of penance for a perceived crime that - to her mind - she committed and that God won't forgive her for.
Yet when she meets Maury - a helpless mute - Temple sees a chance to right some wrongs. A chance to rekindle the flicker of humanity inside her. And so she sets off across the southern states of what was once America, in an attempt to try and rebalance the scales. Unfortunately for her, the walking dead are the least of her troubles. There's a man on her tail, seeking a revenge that can only be achieved with her death. It seems that her past isn't willing to let her go so easily...
There is a wonderful dynamic underpinning the relationship that forms between Temple and Moses, her pursuer. There's an affinity, an understanding between then and it's interesting to see how it affects them and their actions. Moses is perhaps the only person that really understands her, and he performs a dual role - as both her potential murderer and surrogate father-figure. It's a beguiling mix, but one that works superbly. Temple's traits and quirks are also developed via her relationship with Maury: we see her iron resolve and the utter fearlessness she possesses, yet we also see flashes of the young girl that she is - glimpses of the carefree girl that she might have been in a different time. The result is both convincing and touching. Temple's ultimately a tragic figure, forced into a brutal, lonely life so different from the one she may have led had she been born decades earlier (the 'date' scene towards the end of the book is a wonderful hint at this very point).
The strong characterisation is matched by the prose. The use of the present tense lends a real sense of immediacy to the proceedings, while the lack of conventional dialogue and the fluid writing almost makes you feel like you're listening to the story rather than reading it: as if someone is telling it to you. Subsequently it takes on the feel of a modern fable. The style of the writing fits the subject matter perfectly - there's often a pleasingly whimsical undertone to the stark grandeur of the prose, an undertone that speaks of hope.
And there is hope in this ravaged world. Temple can see it; in a way it's what drives her on, this desire to see the beauty that can still be found if you know where to look, although she regards her enjoyment of such beauty as some sort of sacrilege. Yet this isn't a world where the undead hordes cover every square inch of the earth, but one where at times the living dead are almost an irrelevance. Often Temple will drive for miles and miles without seeing a single meatskin. And there are people traveling the country on the roads like they've always done: there is friendship and trust amongst them, and it's pleasing to see such virtues exist in a world where society is on the verge of collapse - it perhaps paints a different picture to many other novels with similar subject matter.
Verdict: The Reapers are the Angels is a real triumph, a literary fantasy where the zombies are mostly window-dressing. This is a novel more concerned with people and their relationships, with the human spirit and all its flaws and frailties. It's a story driven by the characters' needs to establish some sort of order in their lives, some sort of goal to cling to, and all the pitfalls that arise because of this need. It speaks of resilience and belief, of hope and sorrow, and the need to look for the beauty in life, no matter how hard that might be. An instant post-apocalyptic classic.