Friday, April 24, 2015

Book Review: "The Dead Lands" by Benjamin Percy

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

I'll admit I'm a bit of a hypochondriac, but I have come a long way from being convinced I had the plague when I caught a bad cold while reading Stephen King's The Stand many years ago. If I hadn't, I certainly wouldn't be able to read many of the post-apocalyptic, dystopian novels out there that chronicle the world after major pandemics without convincing myself I had whatever illnesses wiped out most of the world!

Benjamin Percy's The Dead Lands chronicles a future world in which our planet was hit by a massive flu epidemic that wiped out millions. In an effort to prevent the further spread of the disease, or perhaps wipe out those they felt were carriers, many countries detonated nuclear blasts, which caused further illnesses in survivors and caused animals to mutate into savage, deadly creatures.

In what used to be St. Louis, a walled outpost called The Sanctuary has thrived for many years, purportedly protecting its citizens from the threats of the outside world, while governing through fear, violence, and corruption. The only bright spot in this bleak existence is a museum devoted to chronicling artifacts and events of the past, curated by Lewis Meriwether, the highly intelligent son of the Sanctuary's former mayor. One day, from the dead lands surrounding the Sanctuary, a lone woman comes riding in, telling of places far away where there is water, and natural resources, and life beyond the drudgery they all know. While the mayor tries to brand her as a deadly savage, she has come for one reason: to bring Lewis Meriwether back with her.

But the tales that the woman tells prove too enticing for some. Mina Clark, a tough ranger with demons of her own, convinces Lewis (yep, in case you haven't been following along: Lewis and Clark) and a group of others to follow this woman, Gawea, into the dead lands, and find out whether the world she promises beyond the Sanctuary is true. But they're utterly unprepared for the danger—both human and otherwise—and the beauty which they will find. And getting to Astoria, Oregon isn't half the battle.

I'd never read anything by Percy before but I was tremendously impressed by the vividness of his language and the world he painted. The characters were really fascinating, although at times the shift in perspectives among so many characters became a bit confusing. Ultimately, though, I didn't think the book delivered on its promise—I felt as if it took far too long to get going, at times it was unrelenting in its brutality (how many mutant creatures could one group of people encounter?), and the whole thing didn't quite have the payoff I was hoping for.

The Dead Lands is a well-written and unique addition to the dystopian landscape, although a little bit more horror-focused at times than other novels in this genre. It's certainly not the Lewis and Clark story you're used to!

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