The Dead Lands

Take a trip across the deadly wastes of a post- apoc­a­lyp­tic USA in Benjamin Percy’s epic novel.

SFX - - Rated -

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.

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