He nods. He understands. And then he takes my hand and presses his lips against my palm. It feels like fire entering my bloodstream and laying siege to my body. He kisses my wrist, and I am an inferno. He starts to move up my arm, his breath tantalizing, and I almost give in as he pulls me to him.

But instead I step back, cradling my arm to my chest. “Be well,” I tell him because I don’t know how to explain what I really want to say. And then I slip out the window and am covered in snow that instantly douses my skin, which just moments before had been aflame.

Paranormal romance has evolved certain tropes that are in danger of becoming repetitive. Firstly, the whole romance itself has often been perpetuated through a love triangle whose oscillations sustain a series of novels. Secondly the female protagonists have a tendency to either be clumsy, or suffer extreme injuries/physical deprivations. What interests me is that this kind of wish fulfillment fantasy carries echoes of male adventure novels. Bond having to choose between the ‘good girl’ and the bad. Clive Cussler‘s Dirk Pitt receives terrible injuries only to get right back up again and carry on. Are Paranormal Romance books just gender-swapped boys’ own adventures, with all that that implies?

Mary lives with her mother and brother in a community of survivors following a catastrophic event that destroyed civilization. Their memories of the time before are vague and the event itself is simply referred to as ‘The Return’ – when the dead rose and began to feed on the living. These once human creatures are known as the Unconsecrated and for her entire life Mary has lived with the sound of their cries every day, pressed up against the protective fence that surrounds the village. Beyond the fence lies the impenetrable Forest of Hands and Teeth.

When Mary’s mother is killed and her brother disowns her, she is thrown to the mercy of the Sisters, who run the village community. Her only other option would be to marry, but her best friend is to marry the boy she loves Travis and his brother, Harry, who does want her let the Sisters take her from her home. She is alone.

Sister Tabitha attempts to break Mary’s spirit and teach her that the only option is to accept her fate. Instead the young girl continues to find new ways to rebel, despite her punishments. Eventually she discovers a secret that the Sisters and the Guardians, who patrol the village fences, have been hiding. There is another girl in the Cathedral, wearing red, who Mary has never seen before. She is not from the village. Is there another place where life survived? Will she ever, as her mother promised her, see the ocean?

This is a very problematic novel. For a start the ‘romance’ is entirely counter-productive. Sister Tabitha claims that Mary’s headstrong nature will be the doom of the village. As it happens, she is not far wrong. The main character’s insistence on pursuing her own desires are pitched as being liberating, but she is living in the centre of community surrounded on all sides by monsters! Priorities! When survival becomes the most important thing, Mary is still mooning after Travis. More interesting by far is her relationship with her brother Jed, who blames her for their mother’s death. Unfortunately the novel only returns to their conflict near the end, just in time to tie up loose ends before the anticlimactic conclusion.

Mary is simply infuriating, her self-absorption almost justifiable if the reader considers that she must be suffering from colossal trauma given the village’s circumstances. The Unconsecrated themselves are mindless monsters that are simply always there. Their function in the story is to represent an ever-present threat, but beyond that there is nothing of interest about them.

This is a frustrating, tedious novel, that loses its way once the characters themselves become lost in the Forest of Hands and Teeth.

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