Book Review: The Ruins by Scott Smith


Summary: Four college graduates take a vacation to Mexico in the late summer.

Amy* and her boyfriend, Jeff, will begin medical school in the fall, while Stacy will be going to grad school to become a social worker. Stacy’s boyfriend, Eric, is planning to teach high school English. While in Cancun, the quartet meet Matthias, a quiet German visiting Mexico with his brother Heinrich, and a trio of Greeks who don’t speak English but who are fun to drink with.

When Matthias’ brother goes missing, the four friends offer to accompany him on his search, and one of the Greeks tags along for fun. What starts out as a fun outing — a little adventure to a minor archeological site — quickly spirals out of control, descending into an ordeal of terror, deprivation, pain, and death.

There’s something about the archeological site — the ruins — that isn’t right. Something insidious, intelligent, and evil that may just be the end of them all.

ThoughtsThe Ruins is basically the literary equivalent of a B sci-fi / horror film. I love B horror films, but…

This is complicated.

I guess when you watch a movie, you’re a little more removed from the characters than you are when you’re reading a book; because the POV in a movie is always that of looking in from behind that fourth wall, whereas in a book the POV can be from anywhere — inside a character’s head, for example. When you’re watching a bad horror movie, it’s easy to be a little detached. You know that some — or sometimes all — of the characters are not going to make it to the credits, and that’s okay. They’re usually somewhat annoying, and it’s easy not to invest in them beyond maybe picking one or two that you personally hope will make it through to the end. Books — at least well-written ones — are different.

I’d say The Ruins is well-written. It’s effective, compelling, engaging, consistent, and gripping. It’s certainly not “high literature,” but it’s a good read.

This means that you see and experience things alongside the characters. You get to know them — whether or not you like them — and this means that what happens to them is more effective in the literal sense — it effects a more potent reaction. Which is a good thing. It means that the horror is more immediate, less removed and objective, a little more uncomfortable. The time and detail possible in a book allow the room necessary for people and places to come to life. The characters are not just disposable cardboard cutouts, as the characters in many horror films seem to be, but are more fully shaded in, fleshed-out people.

That said, I came to dislike all four main characters well before the end of the book. If I were going to write an analysis of this book, I might choose to write about how it seems to say that you can’t escape who you are.

Each character has aspects of their personality that could be seen as flaws, although aren’t necessarily so. Amy is a complainer who doesn’t deal well with discomfort and needs to be part of a group. Stacy is absent-minded, very passive, a daydreamer who has trouble staying grounded and present. Eric is aimless, worried he’s unimportant, unsatisfied with the course his future seems to be on, and maybe wishes he was someone else. Jeff is driven, always planning ahead, ready to take action and do what’s necessary, but also easily fixated on one option and unable to consider others. He is desperate to get to the next step and can’t seem to just let things be as they are.

These various character aspects lead to escalations and disasters as the story progresses.

The other two characters, Matthias the German and “Pablo” the Greek, are less well-developed. The Greek is basically background noise – he’s barely a real person, even in the minds of the other characters, which could be the point. Matthias is probably the most likable character in the book, but he seems to take the role of an observer, looking on from a removed place as the other characters make decisions and choices.

A main theme of the book is definitely barriers, especially barriers that effect communication and understanding, such as language, culture, and emotional barriers. These barriers both facilitate and create the unfortunate occurrences in the story.

Verdicts: I’d definitely recommend this book if you’re a fan of the science fiction / horror genre, especially if you like stories about a group of people going into the woods and finding something bad that tries to kill them. It has some descriptive gore, so beware if squeamish.

I still can’t decide if I actually liked it or not, but I guess it did get a reaction from me, and I’m still thinking about it a week or so after finishing it, which is something.

Ratings (out of 5 stars):

  • Overall: ★★★
  • Characters: ★★
  • Setting: ★★★★
  • Plot: ★★
  • Pace: ★★★★
  • Tone: ★★★

*I listened to the audio edition of this book, so if I spelled the names wrong it’s because I only heard them and didn’t see their spelling.