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With the scent of Halloween's spooky-sweet treats in the air and the end of the year fast approaching - already roving packs of advent calendars have been released into the wild, nesting in eerie supermarket alleys in plain sight of your children and mine - I've found myself wondering of late: whatever will we remember of 2010? What will those essential events and experiences which define the year be? I suppose it depends on your perspective, on your individual interests. Firstly for me, I think, I'll look back on 2010 as the year we completely failed to make contact. Turns out Arthur C. Clarke was just making stuff up all along! Scandalous.
Besides that... well. I'm a keen gamer, a devotee of speculative fiction, and plenty of other things besides - not necessarily in that order, either. From that point of view, 2010 has been, in many senses, the year of the zombie. More to the point, it's been the year zombies overstayed their welcome, and speaking frankly, their welcome was tenuous at best. I've become, I confess, rather disillusioned with the mindless hive of undead in varying states of decay, as seen in film, literature and, in particular, video games. There've been zombies of one variety or another in every other game I've played in 2010, and honestly, I'd rather have stuck with the Nazis we used to shoot in the face - back in the day, you know? Zombies... they're just not terribly interesting, are they? They don't think; they don't scheme; they don't even move very much unless somebody's sautéed up a serving of fresh brains.
And yet the dead live. Wherever you look, there they are: easy fodder for creative types stuck for a Big Bad in their books or movies or games or whatever. And wouldn't you know it, they're in The Reapers Are the Angels, too. Which, rather counter-intuitively, just so happens to be singularly the best thing with zombies in it in... oh, years.
I tend to think that's because it's not really about the zombies. The Reapers Are the Angels is Temple's story, and sure, there are zombies in it, but they're pretty much beside the point; better to consider them a part of the fabric of this fiction's setting rather than a driving force of its narrative. The real evils of the rotten world little Temple has been born into are the vicious survivors she encounters after fleeing the relative safe haven we find her in at the outset. In spite of which unfortunateness, Temple tries to keep her chin up: "You gotta look at the world what is," she remarks at one point, "and try not to get bogged down by what it ain't." But these desperate men and women are more of a threat to Temple than any old army of "meatskins," as Alden Bell - a pseudonym for Joshua Gaylord, author of Hummingbirds - has it over the course of his first genre work.
Moses Todd in particular. The brother of a monstrous oaf whose violent tendencies beget him an early grave courtesy of our nearly-teenaged protagonist, Moses sets off on Temple's trail - not because he feels she particular deserves the bloody retribution he aims to reign down on her, but because she killed Abraham Todd - whether or not he deserved it. Simple as that. As Temple reflects, "You can't put nothing past these southern boys. They just sit around waiting for somebody to kill their brother so they can get started on some vengeance. It's like a dang vocation with them."
Moses is a very real threat - threat being spelled here with a capital T, make no mistake - but he's far from a lumbering brute. He's smart, he's strong, and perhaps he's evil, at that. Nevertheless he and Temple encounter one another on a number of occasions, and the curious bond that develops between them, as between a hunter and his particular devious prey, is the singlemost strength of The Reapers Are the Angels. That said, Temple's relationship with Maury - a mute; a "dummy," as per Temple's straightfoward ways - is tremendously effective, too.
You've probably cottoned on to the biblical names, and you might well have recognised the title of Bell's book as verse the 39th of Matthew, chapter 13. Accordingly, Moses can be taken to represent Temple's transgression against God and the laws of the land, and in Maury perhaps she hopes to earn a sort of redemption - but was the sin even her own? There's a fair bit of religion and its associated imagery going on in The Reapers Are the Angels, all told, but it never once gets in the way of what amounts to a breathtakingly brave and profoundly bittersweet story.
The Reapers Are the Angels is a superb novel - transcendent, you might say. Surely it will stand in a few short months as amongst the year's very best, and not least because of Bell's delightful use of language: his register... his approach to character, setting and narrative... the wonderful Southerness of it all. From the miracle of the fish - I'll let you discover that one for yourself - through to the denouement atop Niagara Falls, Alden Bell's book is an unqualified masterclass. So often in criticism it proves difficult to decide which of a host of problems to foreground in a review, but there's simply nothing about The Reapers Are the Angels not to sing the praises of.
I'm telling you: not a single, solitary sausage. Absolutely bloody marvelous.
The Reapers Are The Angels
by Alden Bell
UK Publication: September 2010, Tor
UK Publication: September 2010, Tor