The Reapers are the Angels is a post-apocalyptic zombie thriller, combining the best of both genres. It is a stunning, character-driven, evocative narrative that shares more in common with Jack Kerouac than George Romero. Author Alden Bell has effectively written that dusty coming of age standard, the road trip, but in an entirely different way.
The protagonist, Temple, is a young woman of indeterminate age. One of the children born after the apocalypse she has, in effect, inherited the earth. Whilst the older generation still clings to conventional ideas of community and desperate attempts at a pre-zombie normalcy, Temple is most comfortable on the road. She's an adventurous spirit and, most importantly, a survivor.
In The Reapers are the Angels, Temple's peregrinations take her through the Southeast and Texas. Initially, she's just motivated by her instinctual urge to keep ahead of the zombies ('slugs' or 'meatskins'). It doesn't take long, however, before she picks up a sidekick and, more inconveniently, pisses off a bloodthirsty evildoer. It becomes the unlikeliest of races: can this young girl deliver her mentally-challenged ward to his family before she's hunted down by a killer?
Reapers happily defies the most cherished post-apocalyptic tradition - the "how?" (And, of course, the "how do we fix it?"). The reader has no idea what's happened, when, where or why. And the protagonist, Temple, has absolutely no intention of gallantly questing about until she unlocks the magical vault that fixes the zombie infestation. This world simply is. Temple belongs in it, and, due to Bell's talent, the reader quickly joins her.
Even Temple's idiosyncratic take on the English language soon goes unnoticed - I spent the first chapter stumbling over her words, but, from then on, was completely absorbed. Like many of the best authors, Bell uses the character's unique perspective to engage the reader, not to drive them off. Temple is strange, but never alien.
The zombies, interestingly, are completely unimportant. They're shambling plot devices, that could easily be replaced by Triffids or vampires or maniacs or... nothing. Bell's book, like the phenomenal Walking Dead series, isn't about the shambling undead - it is about the living, and what happens to them.
Reapers only suffers from a few small flaws. First, even after completing (and adoring) the book, I find the name completely and utterly goofy. It tries a little too hard. Second, and this is completely out of the book's control, I think Reapers is unfortunately tied to The Passage, mostly from the immense marketing campaign of the former. The books are wildly different. The Passage is a painstaking replication of genre standards; Reapers breaks the mold entirely. In ten years, I suspect that only one of these books will be remembered - and it won't be The Passage.
The Reapers are the Angels is a daring, moving, captivating book. Selfishly, I want it to be longer - to be a trilogy - to be one of those infinitely-long fantasy epics that never ends. Alden Bell has written a crackerjack miracle of a first novel.