The Fence Mender is an enjoyable if not revolutionary addition to the zombie genre. Decades ago, mankind faced an apocalyptic infestation of parasites that transformed people into murderous, cannibalistic automatons (i.e., zombies). Now, a small number of urban enclaves are the last bastions of civilization, each protected by a metal-mesh protective fence that keeps the zombies out. (Why no one ever built a concrete wall is never explored.)
Our lonely, misunderstood hero is responsible for keeping the fence in good repair. However important his job may be, his heart yearns for something more, something beyond his narrowly circumscribed world. Specifically, he yearns for a life with with a woman in a neighboring fence-city with whom he has maintained a wistful radio relationship. When the woman's town is overrun by zombies, the fence mender decides to abandon his post and make the seemingly impossible journey to try to rescue her.
It is no surprise that first time novelist Anghus Houvouras is a film critic and filmmaker, as The Fence Mender (Lulu paperback; Kindle ebook) has a decidedly cinematic flavor. And notwithstanding the novel's pastoral cover, sedate start and melancholy official blurb, that flavor ultimately is action extravaganza. Our initially nebbishy, contemplative hero slides easily into improbable action man mode for the final third of the story as he literally pulls out the heavy artillery and faces down hordes of zombies while participating in several mighty big explosions. And even as Houvouras entertains us with large-scale violence and chaos, he also focuses the attention down on our leading players, inviting us (as action movies often do) to care more about the fate of two people than about the dozens of other minor characters who flesh out the action (or the countless multitudes who have already died pitiably in the background).
But even if The Fence Member is a novelized screenplay at heart, it is fun and effective. The action sequences excite, and the novel does succeed, in a broad-brush way, in creating empathy for our hero, as well as tension about who will ultimately survive. These accomplishments are genuine and significant.
However, the novel needs a thorough proofread, as typos and continuity slips abound. Moreover, although the novel is already a relatively short 200 or so pages, more could easily be cut. The first 10% of the book is completely extraneous, including an entire pre-credit sequence -- excuse me, prologue -- that provides some needless background on the origins of the fence-city system. Indeed, our hero is not introduced until chapter three. Everything before that is expendable, as are the occasional subsequent passages where the POV shifts away from our main characters to some military and political folks who deliver some clunky exposition. The Fence Mender is a good read, but it could be even better in a revised, re-edited, refocused edition.
Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Delacorte Books for Young Readers; Amazon) also involves a zombie menace that has overrun the world but is kept at bay from the few remaining pockets of humanity by a chain-link fence. However, except for that similarity, Ryan's world is very different than the one portrayed in The Fence Mender. Civilization has deteriorated far more; the origin of the fences is far more mysterious. Most importantly, there is far more teenage angst and moping. Once the heroic fence mender in Houvouras' tale decides to save his lady love, mindless action (which I enjoy tremendously) takes center stage. By contrast, although The Forest of Hands and Teeth contains a perfectly fair amount of zombie mayhem, it is overshadowed by teenage whining, self-doubt, self-discovery, self-loathing, and general self-involvement. Some people may prefer that. And Ryan's writing certainly is fine, the atmosphere of dread and mystery is strong, and the novel maintained my interest enough that I read through to the end. Moreover, I didn't notice any typos. But for all that, I enjoyed The Fence Mender more.