Review for “The Dead Lands” by Benjamin Percy (2015)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
This is another doozy of a review. When I first started it I was originally between 3 and 4 stars, because despite the many flaws of this book I still managed to read it in less than a week. It’s not very often that a book compels me to finish it, despite the eye-rolling, sometimes sleep-inducing journey it took to get there. There were moments that I found myself enjoying this book, then I became frustrated and annoyed with it, then went to enjoying it, and back and forth and back and forth until the end.
This novel opens up about 150 years after a deadly flu virus called H3L1 (“Hell”) has wiped out most of mankind. In humanity’s complete breakdown nuclear weapons were unleashed, and many of the remaining humans have been affected by cancer or become deformed in some way from the fallout (missing limbs, tumors, extrasensory powers, etc). Within this ruined world are a group of survivors, thousands in number, located near the former city of St. Louis. Called “The Sanctuary,” it’s a safe haven behind walls with a corrupt government ruling over it. With each day that passes, the current prospects of survival for the inhabitants are becoming more and more grim. Water is running out, food is scarce. Paranoia begins to spread. People are scared of the mayor, who rules the Sanctuary with an iron fist.
Outside of the walls of the Sanctuary are miles and miles of what is called the “Dead Lands.” Due to the heavy amounts of nuclear waste in the atmosphere, it is a fearsome, desolate place inhabited by frightening creatures–gigantic spiders, man-sized, bloodsucking bats, and vicious wolves. The mayor uses this place as a consequence to Sanctuary dwellers who challenge his authority, those who criticize him are exiled there and left to be devoured by horrible creatures. It’s some scary shit.
Anywho, within the Sanctuary are a small group of people–Lewis, a museum curator, and Clark, a female sentry, who are prompted to leave the town when a mysterious young girl named Gawea (Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea…*sigh*) arrives and pleads for them to come with her to Oregon, a fertile place with endless water and green grass. With several others, this group manages to secretly escape and go on a dangerous journey to Oregon through the Dead Lands to an unknown fate. The book then breaks in two: we follow Lewis and Clark’s adventure as they make their journey to Oregon and stay behind with Ella (Lewis’ assistant) at the museum in the Sanctuary as life gets more and more treacherous under the evil mayor’s rule.
Characters are a problem in this book. One of the villains here is obviously the mayor of the Sanctuary, but he’s not given too much consideration other than the stock ‘evilness’ that we come to expect from all of the big bad ass people we read about. Gawea has somewhat of a backstory, but it’s nothing special, more of a function to move the plot along and nothing else. And Lewis is so distant as a protagonist in his detachment from the other characters that he, not surprisingly, is also detached from you, the reader. There’s very little to compel you to care about what happens to him, despite the fact that most of the book is about him. The ending of this book was also a major letdown. The ultimate arrival and showdown with the community in Oregon just kinda…happens. I wasn’t impressed. Maybe the author is planning a sequel or something. *Kanye shrug*
The Dead Lands is definitely a post-apocalyptic novel, but it has all of the earmarks of a fantasy story. There are quotes from J.R.R. Tolkien (literally), tales of fantastic beasts, and epic battles. I was about 25% into it when I realized this and dropped my guard a little. It’s also a retelling of the historic Lewis and Clark expedition, with nothing close to the resemblance of that event other than the names of the characters. All of the mixing of genres was mildly irritating, because a lot of times it was as if the book had lost its focus. Like the journey westward, the plot meanders and stutters along, about a 100 pages could have been cut from this book and it would not have suffered from lack of detail.
I recommend this book, as long as you don’t try too hard to analyze this for post-apocalyptic scientific accuracy. I keep going back to my statement that this book is more fantasy than science fiction for that reason, because the plot holes here are pretty jarring. The time line we have to follow for civilization’s break down is laughable, and the biological reasoning given for animal mutations is just plain ridiculous. The times when I began to enjoy this book is when I simply shut off my expectations of what post-apocalyptic fiction is supposed to be and just let myself get carried away by the fantasy.