Temple's landscape is a bleak one. Cities are full of mostly abandoned buildings, highways are littered with the hulks of cars left to rust where they lay, and people are either too frightened or too evil to make any attempt to work together to rebuild society. She has been traveling for most of her short life, sometimes with others but lately mostly alone.
So far, so typical, of pretty much every post-apocalyptic road novel written in the last three decades. And The Reapers Are the Angels does indeed make use of all of the genre's now hoary tropes. Zombies, mutants, gangs of thugs and rapists, good but clueless people holed up on their family estate--they're all here. But although this novel is a really good horror read, it is so much more than that as well.
To start, there's Alden Bell's glorious, soaring prose. Here are the opening paragraphs:
God is a slick god. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.
Like those fish all disco-lit in the shallows. That was something, a marvel with no compare that she's been witness to. It was deep night when she saw it, but the moon was so bright it cast hard shadows everywhere on the island. So bright it was almost brighter than daytime because she could see things clearer, as if the sun were criminal to the truth, as if her eyes were eyes of night. She left the lighthouse and went down to the beach to look at the moon pure and straight, and she stood in the shallows and let her feet sink into the sand as the patter-waves tickled her ankles. And that's when she saw it, a school of tiny fish, all darting around like marbles in a chalk circle, and they were lit up electric, mostly silver but some gold and pink too. They came and danced around her ankles, and she could feel their little electric fish bodies, and it was like she was standing under the moon and in the moon at the same time. And that was something she hadn't seen before. A decade and a half, thereabouts, roaming the planet earth, and she's never seen that before.
And then there is the psychological depth with which Bell has written. Temple is a smart girl and a resourceful one. Her heart is a warrior's. She's illiterate, but has the soul of a poet. She's also introspective and haunted; as her story unfolds we learn that she's running from a mistake--the mistake of a child, but one from which she will never fully recover. Although she does make enemies--she kills a man who attempts to rape her and spends the rest of the book pursued by his brother, who is bent on revenge--still, she does good along the way, not to make amends (in her world, there are far too many kill-or-be-killed scenarios) but because she has an abiding understanding of what is right.
It's not surprising that the heroine of a novel should have such layers, but that the villain should also be nuanced came as a surprise. Although Moses Todd, the vengeful brother, never loses his single-minded resolve to kill Temple when he catches up with her, our last glimpse of him sees him in an utterly surprising, but wholly believable, act of compassion.
The Reapers Are the Angels is that rare book that is a delicious read both for its story and for the quality of its writing. In fact, I would be remiss if I didn't circle back for just a moment to the post-apocalyptic setting and zombie infestation of the novel and note that the author is quite comfortable with putrefaction and decay. There are enough lovingly effective descriptions of oozing pestilence to satisfy even the most jaded reader of horror novels (I should know). It's a perfect choice for book clubs that like their books a little on the edgy side and is a natural for handselling at the bookseller level (if I were still in the store I would be pushing this title on all kinds of different readers).