Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Book Review: The Dead Lands
3 Stars - Recommended to fans of post apocalyptic fiction that feels more like an epic fantasy
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Released: April 2015
Let's get one thing straight right from the get-go. When I rated this book, I was really torn between three and four stars. A big part of me wanted to rate it four stars because I read the hell out of this thing in a matter of a few days. I didn't want to put it down and it's not very often that a book really pulls me in like that. But there was another part of me that thought about who I was rating the book for. I rate the book for you. The reader. To help you decide whether this is the kind of book you'd want to go out and read for yourself. So I had to look at this book through the eyes of someone who reads post apocalyptic fiction and compare it against all of the other books out there in that genre. And while The Dead Lands is most certainly a post apocalyptic book, it also reads like an epic fantasy. So much so that at times, I had to remind myself that it was taking place in an undisclosed future (or possibly a very distant past?!) and not some alternate world.
The novel opens up one hundred years after a series of apocalyptic events wipe out most of humanity. While the threat of nuclear war and super viruses are things of the past, the world still suffers the effects of it greatly. Most humans are deformed in some way - stunted limbs, blindness, the development of strange powers - and their deaths are usually brought about by cancer, melanoma running rampant due to the nuclear fall out still polluting the air and the dust. And theirs is most definitely a world of dust.
Our group of survivors live in The Sanctuary, located out in old St. Louis. It's supposed to be a kind of safe haven - high walls surround it, an internal government rules it, and everyone's got a job to do, a way to contribute to the greater good. But things are bad and only getting worse. They are barely hanging on - the water supply has run low, food is scarce, and everyone is fearful of Thomas, the new Mayor.
Outside the walls is what is known as the Dead Lands. Untold miles of dust and destruction, inhabited by super-creatures. Gigantic spiders and bats, hairless sand wolves. Animals that were forced to evolve, that were poisoned during the fallout. Those that rule within the Sanctuary's walls use these creatures as a consequence for potential usurpers and nay-sayers. Anyone who speaks out against the Mayor of the Sanctuary will find themselves exiled, tied to a tree in the woods beyond the walls, and left to be eaten by the horrors beyond as a warning to the others.
Of course, for some, the Sanctuary is anything but. And there's a small group of people who are planning to escape from it, in the hopes of finding something, anything better. Led by Clark, a female sentry and supply runner, the group's willingness to flee the walls becomes a necessity when a strange rider named Gewea arrives at the Sanctuary's wall, pleading with them to come with her, back to her home, in Oregon. She tells of green grass and endless supplies of water. She speaks of their leader, Aran Burr, and has with her a letter, addressed to Lewis, a quiet man who runs the Sanctuary's museum and who is feared and mistrusted by many of the inhabitants. Lewis recognizes Aran as the man in his visions, the man who has been calling to him in his dreams. And so Lewis, Clark, Gawea, and a handful of others sneak out of the Sanctuary on an epic journey towards an uncertain future, towards a promise of a New America, all on the word of Gawea, a women whose jet black eyes hide many secrets.
From here, the book breaks in half. On one hand we follow Lewis and Clark's trials and tribulations as they make their way to Oregon, and on the other we remain within the walls of the Sanctuary and watch as Ella, Lewis's assistant at the museum, and Simon, a local pickpocket, take steps to tear down everything Thomas (the Mayor) has worked so hard to build.
Part Station Eleven (sprawling epic, years after an apocalypse, relics of the old world stored in a museum), part LotR (minus the elves and dwarves but with just as many bad ass battles), and part history lesson (Lewis, Clark, and Sacajawea - there are so many parallels), The Dead Lands can sometimes come across as a book that doesn't know exactly what it wants to be. And while there were moments where I felt Percy was trying to take on way too much, or was losing his focus, in the end he did a really nice job pulling it all together.
It's been interesting, watching Benjamin Percy's writing evolve over the years. With each novel, he tackles larger landscapes. His world building and story telling becoming more solid, more confident. His books demonstrating a bit more swagger. Which makes it all the more interesting when you realize that The Dead Lands is quite possibly his most polarizing novel to date.