The Dead Lands
Take a trip across the deadly wastes of a post- apocalyptic USA in Benjamin Percy’s epic novel.
Release Date: 9 April 400 pages | Hardback/ ebook Author: Benjamin Percy Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Tales of life after civilisation’s end are getting more common every day, and one downside of this popularity explosion is a major dose of over- familiarity. You can switch around the adversaries and the problems to overcome, but whether the protagonists face zombies, vampires or just ordinary people pushed into savagery, postapocalypse fiction is in danger of seeming a little repetitive.
Author Benjamin Percy comes up with an interesting potential solution in his latest novel. The apocalypse in The Dead Lands may be pretty standard – a deadly virus, with added nuclear devastation – but this gritty tale of a future USA turns out to have more in common with mythic fantasies like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series than it does with The Walking Dead.
The book depicts a world that has descended into a near- medieval existence. In the walled city of St Louis, now called the Sanctuary, the inhabitants live under the tyrannical rule of the Mayor. Then, the first outsider seen for decades arrives from out of the “Dead Lands” – a young girl named Gawea, who claims to have come from a healthy, established community on the west coast. Seeing a threat to his power, the Mayor orders her execution, but a group of Sanctuary rebels have other ideas. One daring rescue later, the rebels and the girl set off on an epic journey across the continent, voyaging through the lethal wastelands towards what they hope is a better life.
It’s here that the novel really hits its stride, turning into a pulpy reimagining of the historical Lewis and Clark expedition across America, and it’s a portrait of a ruined world that’s both lurid and compelling.
As the novel progresses, it switches regularly between the desperate travels of the rebels and the ever- worsening situation in Sanctuary, exploring the characters in depth while also shaking things up with moments of savage, unpredictable violence. However, it’s the fantastical edge that Percy adds to the story that really grabs the attention, giving a typically bleak set- up an evocative sense of mystery and magic.
Right from the early sequence where a mechanical owl makes its first appearance, The Dead Lands is unapologetic about its pulp fantasy roots, and Percy makes the novel’s stranger moments impactful and majestic, while also preventing the sense of sprawl that occasionally derailed his previous genre thriller Red Moon. Instead, he keeps the focus on the two main plot threads, and brings a weight and realism to the characters, making the book a propulsive and often gripping read.
Written in sharp, jagged prose that’s just as strong evoking landscapes as it is tackling the vivid action sequences, the book has so many effective moments that it’s rather frustrating when problems do finally develop. Percy’s approach to the apocalypse is fascinating and powerful, but it’s more effective in the early, enigmatic build- up than when he finally shows his hand.
He’s also a little on- the- nose at times – he probably didn’t need to make the historical references obvious by actually naming the two main characters Lewis and Clark – and while the journey remains a thrilling ride, the book’s finale is surprisingly low- key and gets resolved quicker than you might expect.
Ultimately, the freshness of the book’s approach can’t disguise the overall sense of familiarity. Aside from a couple of genuine surprises, we’re in very well- travelled territory, and if you’re already tired of this kind of bleak and gritty survival story, The Dead Lands isn’t going to make you change your mind. Despite the flaws, however, there’s much about the novel to recommend, and it’s still a fascinating, weird and extremely well- written example of the post- apocalyptic subgenre. Saxon Bullock
If you’re tired of bleak and gritty survival tales, it won’t make you change your mind
Percy is currently working with screenwriter Akiva Goldsman on a US TV adaptation of his werewolf novel Red Moon. Tim Lebbon will be signing copies of The Silence at Forbidden Planet’s Shaftesbury Avenue shop on 18 April.