THE DEAD LANDS, by Benjamin Percy

22875435The Dead Lands
By Benjamin Percy
Grand Central Publishing – 14th April 2015
ISBN 9781455528240 – 416 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


 It’s been awhile since I’ve read something that I’ve enjoyed one moment, became frustrated and annoyed with the next, returned to enjoying, and alternated back and forth until the closing pages. What it comes down to is that I found I could stomach and enjoy The Dead Lands when I shut off my brain and simply let the thrill of a the post-apocalyptic adventure carry me. If I tried to analyze it as anything more, from themes to the language of the text, I felt like abandoning it.
Percy’s novel has two types of inspiration. One, according to the author’s remarks is his rekindled appreciation of fantasy and long held appreciation of Stephen King’s work, particularly those apocalyptic and those featuring a ‘contained’ society (e.g. Under the Dome or Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption). The other inspiration is from history, the exploration west of the Mississippi led by Lewis and Clark, and guided by Sacagawea, following the Louisiana Purchase.
The historical aspects of the novel are nothing more than loose inspiration, the novel is set after all in a post-apocalyptic former USA, starting in the walled city of St. Louis, which has managed to survive by shutting itself off from the wastelands, the dead lands, surrounding. Kept relatively shielded from the viral and nuclear breakouts that brought an end to the civilization we know, the surviving community of St. Louis has kept going through the careful management of its past mayors and leaders, and the hope that one day they will discover news of a United States still around to rejoin and continue rebuilding.
But Thomas Lancer, the new mayor of St. Louis seems more concerned with maintaining his power and keeping the community insular through fear. When a strange rider named Gawea arrives outside the city walls with news of lush lands and other pockets of civilization to the West, Thomas acts to suppress rather than investigate the possibilities this holds for the city.
Circumstances lead Thomas’ childhood friend, Lewis Meriwether to join with Mina Clark and a group of discontents to escape the ‘sanctuary’ of the city and discover what world and possibilities exist beyond. A passionate woman battling alcohol addiction, Mina Clark yearns for adventure and discovery, the complete opposite to Lewis’ personality, but she is kept grounded by love and devotion for her brother. A quiet tinkerer and intellectual, Lewis has spent his life in St. Louis as an outcast, content to spend his time in the halls of the museum and books of the past age rather than pursuing the political career and position that his father held prior to Thomas taking over. Lewis’ odd nature has begun to evolve into signs of supernatural abilities, and Gawea’s role as messenger includes an invitation for Lewis to join the leader of the Pacific community to learn about this next evolutionary step for humanity that he, Lewis, and Gawea each manifest.
The major players of history are thus present here: Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Thomas Jefferson, and Sakagawea. Their fictional counterparts follow a similar trek towards the Pacific. But similarities end here. Thomas Lancer shares a name and political power with historic Jefferson, but Lancer here tries to keep any exploration from happening, rather than commissioning it. The mayor is painted more like Caligula, corrupt, cruel, and deviant. Initially I was troubled by Percy giving Lancer a young male lover, the seemingly only homosexual relationship of the novel shown as an aspect of his uncontrolled desires. This somewhat was lessened by implying later in the novel that another homosexual attraction existed between characters that shone more positively.
But the pure ‘evilness’ of the villains of The Dead Lands weakened any serious nature to the novel, rendering it more like pulp. Thomas Lancer’s right-hand-man, the town sheriff is sadistic and disturbed, abusing his power, collecting hair from female victims that he uses to decorate a collection of mannequins kept in his hideaway. The leader of the Pacific community is likewise portrayed as rather brutal, singular in vision, and thus none of the villains here are particularly relatable.
Gawea is seen as an other by the community of St. Louis, but unlike the historic Sacagawea there is no particular unique cultural heritage that she displays to give any diversity to the cast of characters. She is given a backstory, but very little unique to herself beyond being a tool for the plot. As an outcast who is largely self-selected, Lewis is also hard to identify with as one of the main protagonists. His distance from other characters likewise keeps him rather distant from the reader. Brief moments are spent as he struggles with his newfound magical abilities, but little of substance is established. The most interesting character is probably Clark, though it is not her complimentary/clashing relationship with Lewis that shines, but rather the one with her brother. The added element of romantic interest between Clark’s brother and Gawea could have been used to really develop this trio of characters, but unfortunately the plot doesn’t go this way.
Aside from a few surprises of character demises, the plot goes predictably as the group journeys westward. The ultimate arrival and showdown with the community is lackluster, devoid of weight, making the journey and what will follow in the novel’s sequel of greater import. There is a lot of build up for a simple conclusion. To prevent the novel from following the cliched fantasy journey route, Percy alternates the western journey of Meriwether and Clark’s team with a continued plot of events occurring back in St. Louis as Lancer tries to maintain control and Meriwether’s assistant and friend at the museum starts to work with a young man in pushing the city towards greater freedom and overthrowing the mayor’s ruthless control. This mixture of settings is a good thing for the novel, and though also proceeding predictably, it greatly helped the flow of the novel and helped it maintain its quality of simple entertainment, with protagonists it was easy to love and root for against the evil mayor and his sheriff.
Rather than science fiction, The Dead Lands is closer to fantasy, so don’t equate the future setting with scientific accuracy. The flu strain that played a role in the apocalypse is called H3L1 (Hell, get it?), but in reality the H and N of influenza stand for particular proteins. There is no ‘L’. The biological basis for the evolution and mutations seen in the wilds of post-nuclear America are also just absurd, playing into this novel being more like B movie entertainment than anything serious.
Finally, I really didn’t take to Percy’s style of writing. To a degree I can’t really pin down what the issue is for me, but partially I recognized that it came from his frequent uses of nouns as verbs, and similar twists of grammar that sounded odd or confused meaning. Though there is much that just didn’t sit well with me while reading this I have to admit that the adventure of the plot did make me keep reading and it became enjoyable in that way that pulp or a B movie can, so flawed that it’s mildly fun.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Grand Central Publishing via the Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

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