The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

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Goodreads: The Forest of Hands and Teeth
Series: The Forest of Hands and Teeth #1
Source: Library
Published: 2009


Mary’s village lies in the middle of a forest encircled by a fence through which no one ever leaves.  Outside, the Unconsecrated prowl, hungering for human flesh.  Only the wisdom of the Sisterhood and the vigilance of the Guardians keeps the village safe.  Most people believe things have always been this way.  Mary’s mother, however, has told her stories of the ocean, stories of a world that used to be free.  Mary wants to find that world, but the Sisterhood harbors secrets and they will do just about anything to keep those secrets safe.


The Forest of Hands and Teeth sounds like a zombie dystopia story.  Mary lives in a village cut off from the rest of the world by a gate that also keeps the people safe from the undead whose bites and scratches will infect them, turning them into more zombies to wreak destruction upon their friends and family.  An organization named the Sisterhood rules over the village, controlling the history, religion, and social mores they learn.  The Sisterhood, however, knows more than they tell.  Everything about the plot seems calculated to provide action, excitement, and suspense.  Except it doesn’t.

Though the page count lies just about 300, The Forest of Hands and Teeth does not read like a full-length novel, but rather the introduction to one.  Very little happens in terms of plot.  As expected, Mary starts to question the values of the Sisterhood and discovers that they sometimes lie.  As expected, (I really don’t consider this a spoiler), she finds her way out of the village.  Not as expected, that’s it.  The rest of the book is all Mary’s longings for the oceans and her love affair (highly physical) with a boy betrothed to another woman.  Not just another woman.  (This is a real spoiler. Highlight after the parentheses to read.) Her best friend.

I think I was supposed to find this forbidden affair not only romantic, but also noble and brave, an attempt to fight back against the village’s strict rules governing the place of everyone in society.  (Men and women are expected to marry to raise families, not because they feel passion for one another.)  Ryan inserts a lot of dialogue about the importance of love versus the expectation of commitment (as if love somehow is opposed to commitment and does not entail it).  She also portrays duty as something ugly and twisted.  The other characters’ dedication to doing what is good for the village rather than what they personally desire (an understandable sentiment in light of their belief that they are the last remnants of humanity about to be overrrun by zombies) makes them seem like zealots devoid of all emotion.  In fact, when people talk about this duty, their personalities even change.  People who seem sweet, caring, and maybe even admirable suddenly turn into psychotic terrors when they talk about duty.  Perhaps Ryan wants to show that constantly denying one’s feelings is unhealthy, but she goes too far.

Despite the heavy-handed messages delivered by the book, however, I was not remotely enchanted by this love affair.  By making out with a man engaged to another woman, Mary was deluding herself, hurting the other woman, and driving a wedge into that couple’s future marriage.  She talks about love, but what she was doing seems a lot like lust.   She is physically attracted to the guy, so they make out.  She later admits that she does not even know much about him–what he likes and dislikes, his hopes and his fears.  She was just using his body to make herself feel better when she felt rejected by the rest of the village.

Mary’s own hopes and dreams are also apparently supposed to make her likable, but they too make her seem selfish.  All she ever does is think about the ocean.  She’s obsessed.  She thinks it exists and she wants to go there, no matter what it costs.  She is willing to leave friends and family behind if she has to.  She is willing to sacrifice them to the Unconsecrated if she has to.  This all seems very unreasonable.  Unlike in other dystopias where the government is hiding something, the Sisterhood so far seems fairly innocuous.  Yes, they have secret rooms and stuff and have not revealed their whole history to the village, but the fact remains that the outside world is actually overrun by zombies who will relentlessly pursue you to feast on your flesh.  The Sisterhood has not lied about that.  So why Mary thinks that the ocean is still a zombie-free paradise that she can skip on over to if she can just get past the fence remains a mystery.

Frankly, I do not understand why this book became a bestseller.  The promises the plot makes about zombies and secrets all fall through.  The romance is not romantic and the protagonist is not likable.  The other characters are likable on occasion, but their personalities tend to change to fit the necessities of the plot.  If I read the second book at all, it will only be to find out if the Sisterhood actually did have some deep, horrible secret and why the zombie apocalypse started in the first place.

19 thoughts on “The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

    • Krysta says:

      It’s too late! I read the second one some time after I wrote this review in order to add it to our Halloween celebration. But you’re right. I was annoyed. I thought I was going to read more about Mary and learn about the Sisterhood. So stay tuned for my review of The Dead-Tossed Waves next Saturday! 😉


      • storytimewithbuffy says:

        Oh dear. hahaha! Poor thing. I was caught unawares with that one as well. I refuse to read the third one. I don’t even know if there is a third one, but I don’t even care.

        I look forward to your review!


        • Krysta says:

          Well, I’m glad I’m not the only one with mixed feelings about this book. I was under the impression everyone loved it because it was a bestseller. I’m not going to read the third one, though–I read a fairly detailed summary and it sounds kind of disturbing.


          • Mel@thedailyprophecy says:

            I loved the first one, was annoyed by the second one and absolutely stunned by the last book. I thought it was the best one, but I can see why you don’t want to continue after disliking the first two 🙂


          • Krysta says:

            The summary I read for the third one sounded like it might be the best one–it sounded a lot darker and like it was finally going to (maybe) delve into the zombie problem, how it started, what the government is doing, etc. Then I read what happened to some of the characters and I was disturbed, so I decided I wouldn’t read it.


  1. jubilare says:

    Perhaps it tells people something that the inner selfishness in all of us wants to hear: that our desires are more important and valuable than honor or duty to others. From what you say, though, I wouldn’t find much, or anything, to like in Mary either. That is a shame, because the concept of the world and the premise have a lot of potential.


    • Krysta says:

      That’s very likely. I’m generally troubled by this trend against duty, though. I faced it a lot in college discussions, as well. Duty used to be an admirable thing. Now people seem to see it as somehow opposed to their personal happiness–a personal happiness that they apparently have some “right” to, no matter how obtaining it might hurt others. I find this baffling mainly because if someone else trampled over them to obtain their personal happiness, the injured party would no longer be cheering on the abstract notion of advancing one’s own interests in the face of all adversity, right? For example, even if you like Mary as a literary character, would you like her if she were, say, your best friend in real life and she stole your boyfriend and then sacrificed her family to zombies because she wanted to go on a day trip? Probably not.


      • jubilare says:

        I find it troubling, too. It’s been going on for a while, which makes me hope that we might be in for a turn of the pendulum soon, but who knows. Self-centeredness and selfishness (not quite the same thing, I think) are incredibly stupid when taken as a creed, which is what this basically sounds like. The only way such a creed exists is by focusing on the moment and the self to the exclusion of everything else. I’m a bit boggled BY how easily that disconnect apparently is. :/

        To some extent I get the push against duty above all else. I still think duty is a good and important thing, but like all good things, it can become opressive in ways it is not meant to be: “it is your duty to do this boring job because the government has decided that’s all you are good for” etc. But the answer is not, of course, to reject duty for selfishness.


        • Krysta says:

          There are lots of nuances when it comes to duty vs. desire, which is why this book could have been so good. For instance, the community thinks Mary has a duty either to marry and enlarge the community or otherwise to devote herself to serving the community as part of the Sisterhood. Mary could have tried to argue for a third way or could have tried to fix the system so that she got more of a choice as to whom she married. There could have been discussion!

          Instead, the book makes it sound like you either must absolutely choose duty (or, a rather narrowly defined version or it) or your own wishes. And the story furthermore makes it sound like duty and your personal happiness are somehow by opposed by nature. And it seems to suggest that there is no such thing as a good duty. What about if you’re a student and your duty is to study rather than succumb to your desire to watch movies all night? The book doesn’t address things like that.

          The book also seems to rely on this perceived dichotomy to make Mary likable. Mary is oppressed, but has dreams about the ocean, so I guess that means she’s a free-spirited individual who has some sort of depth that people who don’t want to be eaten by zombies lack. It’s just so interesting that we accept things like this in literature.


  2. Mel@thedailyprophecy says:

    I’m sorry to hear this, because I genuinely enjoy this series. Mary felt very realistic to me with all her flaws and mistakes. I didn’t really care for the romance, but I loved the dark world and how negative things sometimes seemed. I liked the tension, but I can also see why someone would dislike this book. More people had troubles with Mary, so I guess that’s just a very personal thing!


    • Krysta says:

      I was a little hesitant to write so negative review because I know a lot of people like this series and I thought I must be missing something. Mary is realistic–I can think of people in real life who sort of remind me of her–but in the end I wished she would think a little more with her head and a little less with her heart. (That sounds callous when I put it that way, doesn’t it?) I tend to think things through logically, so it’s hard for me to relate to people who seem to make decisions based on what they want rather than on what would seem to give the best outcome. I’m sure others can relate much better to her, though. 🙂 And the world was by far the best part of the book–I wish Ryan had expanded on it.


  3. Soarin Soraya says:

    I found myself hoping Mary would be eaten by the zombies which made reading a very sad experience, especially as someone who had such high hopes. On the other hand, a close friend at the time also read the novel and loved Mary so completely it was a little concerning. Perhaps it comes down to a difference in personality and opinions?

    The setting and the world were quite interesting and I found myself curious as to how they might be expanded upon in the rest of the series. Unfortunately, because I couldn’t stand the characters, I never continued.

    It’s not that the book is without good qualities, but people who place an emphasis on characters will most likely not enjoy it. Or people who don’t have something very in common with Mary either.

    Anyway, loved the review and shall be checking here more often. Thanks!


    • Krysta says:

      I guess that’s a plus about zombie books? You can hope dislikable characters…go away? I didn’t want Mary to be eaten by zombies, but I did wonder if they were going to take care of that weird love triangle.

      For sure liking characters will come down to individual people. I’m sure other readers relate a lot more to Mary than I did. I thought she made a lot of bad, selfish decisions, however, and even though I could sort of understand where she was coming from, I couldn’t condone her actions. That made it hard for me to connect with her in the end.

      The setting and the world were both interesting–that’s the reason I read book two. I wanted to see if Ryan would explain more about that. Unfortunately, she never did. However, the protagonist of the second book is not Mary, but her daughter Gabry, so if you didn’t like the characters in the first book, I guess there’s technically a reason to try the second one. I didn’t like Gabry either, though, so I can’t personally recommend The Dead-Tossed Waves.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the review. 🙂


      • Soarin Soraya says:

        “The Forest of Hands and Teeth” is the first zombie book I read, but I’ve found the plus you mentioned to be a nice touch for novels in the category.
        As for the triangle, I figured it would end as it did since the novel was focused on Mary in a way which seemed to go beyond just the narrative point of view, if that makes sense?

        I agree with you completely. The ends she wanted aren’t uncommon or terrible for the most part, but the means by which she reached them were just… *Sighs and shakes head with a shrug*

        Hm, I hadn’t realized it was her daughter as the protagonist; I may flip through the sequel just to see if I should read it.

        I certainly did!


        • Krysta says:

          The Forest of Hands and Teeth was my first zombie book as well! The only other I’ve read is the sequel, but I gathered from being forced to watch the Jurassic Park movies that this principle also works with dinosaurs.

          Yeah, I wasn’t really surprised by the way the love triangle turned out.

          That’s true. Mary’s attraction to Peter as well as her longing to see the outside world were understandable, and I think Ryan could have created a very likable, compelling character from that. Instead, Mary made some really weird decisions–maybe because she had no one to help guide her?

          Mary’s daughter is practically the exact opposite of her–whereas Mary takes decision action on everything, Gabry is afraid of everything. It makes for some interesting dynamics between the two.


          • Soarin Soraya says:

            With dinosaurs as well? Interesting. There might also be an argument for vampires to be included also.

            The triangle seemed obvious from the start. *Shakes head*

            I thought that as well. When looking at her desires, they match up with a lot of what we want today so, ignoring everything else, Mary seems like a very good person.
            And then the choices come into play. *Shrugs*
            If she’d had a guide, it probably would have helped, if he or she wasn’t eaten by zombies in five pages. *Laughs*

            But, all joking aside, it felt quite a bit like the decisions were written to fit the plot rather than the characters.

            Really? The dynamics might be interesting enough to draw me in. It’s been a long time since I read “The Forest of Hands and Teeth” so I may just give the sequel a try to see what new thoughts I might have on the subject.


          • Krysta says:

            I wasn’t really a fan of the second book, so I can’t whole-heartedly recommend it or anything. There’s another weird love triangle and the family dynamics between Gabry and her mother manifest themselves a lot in Gabry alternately keeping secrets from Mary and yelling at Mary. But you do learn slightly more about the outside world, so that’s something.


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