The Reapers are the Angels
by Alden Bell
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. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
This book surprised me in all the right ways. It’s an unflinching and often brutal zombie story, and yet it’s also hauntingly beautiful, moving, and told in the voice of such a unique and interesting character. In its themes and writing style, it really is very different from any zombie (or any paranormal creature) story that I’ve read before.
The main character is Temple, a wonderfully resourceful, thoughtful and independent teenage girl, who has been left alone in a post-apocalyptic world in which most of the Earth’s population has been zombified. She has accepted her situation with surprising grace and maturity. Rather than long for a world that no longer is, or attempt to change it, she has adapted, and she finds beauty in all the little wonders of nature that still exist. This is not the kind of zombie novel where the characters are searching for a cure or a safe haven, or even battling against hoards of zombies just to survive. This is something very different. This is a story about survival, but perhaps more about survival of the soul than of the body. In that way, it is somewhat akin to Warm Bodies, another very unique zombie story that I’ve recently read and loved. Be warned, though; this has none of the romance of Warm Bodies. It is harsher, and in some ways an even stranger book, but just as clever and astonishing.
The zombies in the story are the slow moving, lurching kind. In fact, they rarely pose much of a threat to Temple, and only seem to be a problem if humans are caught unaware, or if people attempt to remain static and walled up in large communities. Temple understands that she is living in a new kind of world, the kind where it is better to keep moving, constantly, and she finds a quiet joy in this. She travels, discovering new places and new people, and she accepts that if the zombies get her, it will be because she has been careless. In this way, the zombies are more like predatory wild animals than monsters, and, in fact, the true dangers of this world come from other humans. I only really have one criticism of the zombie aspect, and that’s the scenes with the mutants, which just felt a little too video-gamey and, for me anyway, didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book.
While staying in a community of survivors, Temple is attacked and forced to defend herself. She kills a man, and then must flee his brother, who wants revenge. Meanwhile, Temple has taken on a mentally handicapped man who cannot fend for himself, trying to take him to whatever remnants of family he has left. The story is therefore half quest, half chase, but the pace, while fast, is not frantic. Temple accepts everything that happens to her, even the basic unfairness of being blamed for killing a man in self-defence, a man who was clearly in the wrong. His brother knows this too, and even regrets having to kill Temple, but he is still set on this course, as if he has no other choice. Both he and Temple almost seem to be bound by deep, raw laws of the world, and both have a strong belief in fate, or at least in some kind of order and meaning that drives them. It is tragic that the deep bond between them is one based on revenge and death.
The feel, story and themes of the book give it a very Wild West feel, so much so that I would call it a Zombie Western. The new post-apocalyptic world seems to suit Temple’s free spirit better than the old world would have; she is at home in a life without restrictions and the complicated rules of society. The revenge theme, particularly, based on a deep feeling of duty rather than justice, fits very well into the book’s style. I found this fascinating, particularly when combined with the lyrical quality of the writing. It’s not just a Zombie Western, it’s a beautiful Zombie Western, which is even more surprising.
The Reapers are the Angels surprised and delighted me. I found it moving, tragic, and beautiful. It’s a fairly short book, well paced, and I was captivated until the very end. (Proof of this: I read most of it on a train, with no seat, sitting uncomfortably on a suitcase with screaming children nearby, and as soon as I started reading I didn’t even notice anymore. And let’s just say, it’s a good job that my stop happened to be the train’s final station.) If you love zombies, or even if you’re getting a little tired of them by now and would like something a bit different, you should definitely consider adding this to your ‘to read’ list.