It seemed only five minutes ago that Twilight author Stephanie Meyer was bestowed the title of "the new J.K. Rowling". Now, before Meyer has even had a chance to finish counting her money, newcomer Carrie Ryan is being touted as the new Stephanie Meyer, with this, her debut novel of life after a zombie apocalypse.

It is very clear by the cover design that her publishers at least are planning wholesale assault on Meyer's dominance of the paranormal, sci-fi romance genre/phenomenon.

Where Meyer's bloodsuckers are cool, rich and aloof, Ryan's flesh-eaters are decaying, feral and repellent, but there are some similarities between the two worlds. Both are filled with fraught, overwrought romance and each is centred on a young, feisty heroine who, through a series of exhausting fights for survival, discovers her true mettle - and that she's apparently a lot hotter than she realised. Cue tortured love triangle.

Beyond that though, comparisons between the two stories do this book a disservice. Ryan is a better, more disciplined writer, and her story dances around, if never quite tackling, larger themes of self-realisation, faith and free will.

Ryan's heroine, Mary, lives in an isolated village governed by the wisdom of the "Sisters" and their cathedral.

The village is an apparent island of civilisation in the middle of the Forest of Hands and Teeth, which swarms with the Unconsecrated. These are the hordes of infected zombies who maraud the fenced settlement boundaries, relentlessly on the lookout for humans to eat and/or infect.

With survival of the species the number one priority, there are few options for young women in Mary's world: wait for a breeding partner to show interest or retire to the sisterhood. Mary's dreams of love and a world she hopes exists beyond the forest, are first mocked, then suppressed by her village. Eventually shunned by her surviving family and rejected by a potential mate, Mary reluctantly turns to the Sisters who promptly keep her a virtual prisoner and force her into silence.

There she dreams of the ocean - a place she's only ever seen in an old photo - and shares her dreams with Travis, a villager being nursed in the cathedral, who is both promised as a husband to Mary's best friend, and the brother of Mary's former betrothed.

When the inevitable happens and the zombies breach the village defences, Mary flees into the forest, along with her two suitors.

At that point the story falls into a repetitive, slightly frustrating pattern of flee, find shelter, wait for zombies to breach the fortifications, flee again. And there are times you'd like to give Mary a good shake for mooning over boys when zombies are all about her looking for a snack.

But really, that makes her human. It's a reminder that she's a child forced to grow up rapidly in a nightmare world. And that while her world, to us, is science fiction, her struggles are real and human and relevant.

Mary is a fully-formed character with strengths and weaknesses, and she inhabits a dark, complex world where good and evil, right and wrong are not always clearly distinguishable. The book is all the better for it. And it's encouraging to find a writer working in that exploding sci-fi/paranormal romance genre - aimed heavily at teenage girls - who is willing to engage readers' brains rather than just their hormones.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth
by Carrie Ryan