Book review: The Ruins

The RuinsThe Ruins by Scott Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an odd book.

It does many things right and kept me interested and reading through to the end to find out what happened next, and yet it still ended up as somewhat unsatisfying. It’s still a good story and if you like horror and aren’t squeamish, it may be worth checking out.

The rest of this review has major spoilers, so skip if you are spoiler-averse.

On the plus side, The Ruins moves at a brisk pace, the prose is lean and direct and there is an inexorable sense of moving forward, of events heading toward a definite conclusion. The characters are varied without lapsing into stereotypes and behave much in the way that you might expect people in their early 20s would–with adult care and thought, but always with the undercurrent of their not-distant childhood running beneath, sometimes erupting in emotional outbursts and petulant actions. Basically these people aren’t shy about yelling and fighting with each other.

The story is a variation on people-trapped-in-a-hostile/haunted-environment. In this case it is the area surrounding the titular ruins. My first pet peeve is that there really aren’t any ruins at all. There’s a mineshaft at the top of a hill and that’s about it. But “The Ruins” sounds a lot cooler than “Mineshaft” so there you go.

We follow what ends up being six people, two couples, and two other young men, one Greek and the other German. The German, Mathias, convinces everyone to join him to find his brother, who is with a group of archaelogists at the ruins, located about 11 miles away from the Mexican town of Coba. And so the group of twenty-somethings leaves behind lazing about on tropical beaches to venture into the jungle.

Things start going sideways when one of them backs into some seemingly innocuous vines. This causes the Mayans of a nearby village to freak out and, using bows and pistols, they force the group up the hill. It eventually becomes clear that the vines are very bad and the Mayans, having salted the earth, are determined to not allow anyone who contacts them to leave the ruins. Well, the hill with the mineshaft.

Over the next few days things deteriorate rapidly. The Greek breaks his back falling down the mineshaft, the vines worm their way into one of the men, the vines actively plot and move against them. Several times the vines literally laugh at the group, mocking their fate. How would you feel being laughed at by a plant? And then when you say “I’m out of here” there’s some Mayan standing there ready to fill you full of arrows. You’d probably feel a bit bummed out.

The group struggles to maintain hope as they ration their meager supplies and wait for potential rescue but the story strongly and repeatedly makes it clear that they are doomed. And they are. Spoiler: everyone dies.

Now, some people may have a problem with sentient, evil plants that can plot, mimic human voices, manufacture scents and smells as traps and generally carry on in ways that are unlike any plant you are likely to come across. And really, it’s quite silly. But if you buy in–and author Scott Smith offers no explanation for the vines, which actually helps with this–you can focus on how well the story plays out.

Watching the group struggle with the vines, the elements, and each other, is interesting and for the most part believable, but I think Smith tips his hand too early, leeching the story of suspense when it seems obvious everyone will die. And when everyone does, you start looking for the big picture, the commentary on society or whatever and it’s not really there. The takeaway I got is “if you’re going to some ruins in a place you’ve never been before, be more prepared than these nitwits were. Also, if all the locals act spooked and tell you to stay away, you may want to listen to them.”

A few plot contrivances struck me as implausible, undercutting the reality that had been built up. Eric, the would-be teacher and manbaby, essentially flays himself with a dirty knife, yet improbably lingers on after losing what seems to be most of his blood. He also manages to accidentally stab Mathias directly in the heart. Speaking of lucky hits, when Jeff, former Eagle scout and de facto leader, decides to try breaking through the Mayans’ gauntlet, the first arrow shot at him manages to pierce straight through his neck. Apparently Mayans are uncanny archers.

Another nitpick is certain writing affectations Smith adopts and uses repeatedly. I’m usually okay with these but for some reason they starting standing out like blood-sucking vines on a patch of barren rock and became distractions. One was a beat that ended many scenes, variations of “And so they did” or “And that’s what happened.” The second and one that stood out much more, was the excessive use of “of course.” It felt like there was a sentence on every other page that ended with “of course,” such as “Amy wouldn’t actually kiss the Greek, of course” or “The Mayans would still be waiting for them at the bottom of the hill, of course” or “And that’s what happened, of course.” It started bugging me toward the end. On the one hand, it’s a convenient shorthand that gets across tone in a few words. But anything used to excess is going to be too much, of course.

Still, I liked the writing overall. As I said up top, the prose is lean and direct, Smith is economical and efficient but the writing never seems perfunctory or threadbare. He manages to take a very limiting situation and keeps it interesting and varied. The characters are at times petty and annoying, but never to the point of being genuinely unlikeable.

The Ruins, then, gets a provisional thumbs-up from me. Its premise is goofy, the story telegraphs the ending too early, but the journey to get there is still an interesting one.

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