Where reapers fear to tread: The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell

(Holt, 2010)

“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.”

Finishing up my impromptu “zombie week” is Alden Bell’s The Reapers Are the Angels, for which my review appeared on Goodreads Dec. 7, 2012. However, upon re-reading the review I find that it does not accurately reflect my views of the novel and comes across as rather more negative than I intended. I really liked the novel and, while not flawless, The Reapers Are the Angels is a thing of rare beauty in a sea of zombie crap.

Although I haven’t re-read the book since my first reading of it, the thing has been nagging at me, like the quiet scratching of a zombie’s bony fingertip at your back door. On that first read. I have to admit that stylistically it turned me off a little. I’m a fan of Cormac McCarthy and his idiosyncratic style. Reading The Reapers Are the Angels for the first time, it is obvious that Bell also has a conspicuous admiration of Cormac McCarthy. In my previous review I wrote:

This is most obviously detected in the lack of quotation marks during dialogue. I have no problem with this in principle, but coupled with the other “McCarthy-isms” it is just too much. The ubiquity of uncommon/archaic words and the frequent use of polysyndeton smacks too closely to McCarthy’s voice to be coincidence. It sounded like someone trying to sound like Cormac McCarthy or, at its lowest points, mocking his style. I don’t at all think Bell was intentionally mocking him, but it’s just that it seemed that he was forcing himself into a style like McCarthy’s and this, to me, made the work feel somewhat insincere.

The popularity of McCarthy’s The Road around this time makes this a suspicious association. However, after reading an interview with Alden Bell (pseudonym for author Joshua Gaylord) where he admits the influence of Cormac McCarthy’s style in his own work, I take it as an homage and not a rip-off. While it does, admittedly, get to be a little much at times (only McCarthy can do McCarthy, IMHO), there are instances of remarkable beauty and eloquence in Bell’s prose.

Another issue I had was that I felt the book was a little too laden with pretense and that it got in the way of the plot. I still think that, to a degree, but really I’m splitting hairs here. It wasn’t that bad. The Reapers Are the Angels is a good book, just shy of excellent. I think what affected my initial impression where my own expectations based on some glowing reviews for it and when I see things too perfect I work to find the flaws.

But do yourself a favor and don’t just go looking for flaws. I guess that applies to life in general, too. Life’s too short to be picking at flaws and The Reapers Are the Angels is too good a book to dwell on them. It’s a thinking person’s zombie story and while Bell may have erred on the side of pretense, it is a thoughtful and sincere work that doesn’t skimp on the horror. And it has a great title.

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