Review: THE DEAD LANDS by Benjamin Percy (Grand Central/Hodder)

PercyB-TheDeadLandsUSAn interesting, excellent dystopian novel

A post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga, a super flu and nuclear fallout have made a husk of the world we know. A few humans carry on, living in outposts such as the Sanctuary-the remains of St. Louis-a shielded community that owes its survival to its militant defense and fear-mongering leaders.

Then a rider comes from the wasteland beyond its walls. She reports on the outside world: west of the Cascades, rain falls, crops grow, civilization thrives. But there is danger too: the rising power of an army that pillages and enslaves every community they happen upon.

Against the wishes of the Sanctuary, a small group sets out in secrecy. Led by Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark, they hope to expand their infant nation, and to reunite the States. But the Sanctuary will not allow them to escape without a fight.

Red Moon was one of my favourite reads of 2013 – an epic commentary on politics, society and race of the post-9/11 America, it was gripping and superbly written. The Dead Lands is a great follow-up: a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis & Clark expedition, it is a story of hope, oppression, and fear. Anything written by Benjamin Percy really is a must-read.

The Dead Lands is an interesting novel. It was never quite what I had expected. It’s brilliantly written, the characters are nicely varied and all flawed. Lewis Meriwether, curator of the past and strangely-gifted loner, whose misanthrope and cloistered narcissism has him butting heads with pretty much everyone in Sanctuary and then during his voyage. Mina Clark, the alcoholic guard of Sanctuary, struggling with her many internal demons and desire for a better life. Thomas, the tyrannical mayor of St. Louis. Slade, the creepy-as-fuck enforcer for the Mayor. Each character is interesting, and their interactions are realistic and interesting to read. They are also, in some cases, extremely creepy, slightly uncomfortable. Percy is very good at creating characters who are well-rounded and oftentimes fascinating.

PercyB-TheDeadLandsUKThe expedition takes a little while to get going, which was not necessarily a bad thing – it’s not exactly a sanctioned operation, so the members have to navigate the oppressive lock-down and isolation of Sanctuary in order to slip out and venture out. After Gawea appears at the gates, unannounced and bearing a message for Lewis, and immediately attacked by the guards, the story gets moving. Up until the characters set out, the story could be seen as a relatively standard (if very-well written) dystopian fiction. Once the characters set out, though, we learn more about this post-apocalyptic future and How We Got Here. Percy offers some commentary on today’s politics and environment (there are mentions of the plutocracy, climate change, and more). The way he builds this post-apocalyptic landscape is also interesting, taking into account the lasting impact of some of the ‘precautions’ world powers took in the wake of the deadly flu-plague that quickly spread. How, decades later, wildlife has evolved to survive in this effectively post-human world. It’s a really interesting read.

There is a small amount of magic in this novel – this was an interesting and unexpected development, and Percy does a very good job of keeping it limited (until some spectacular moments in Part III), and never uses it as a crutch. I also like the way he explains it – framed within a society that has lost so much knowledge and scientific understanding, it’s well-woven into the story.

I think the only thing that comes close to being a disappointment was the length of the novel: I think it could have benefited from being longer. Sure, at 400 pages it’s not exactly short, but given the relative lateness of when the expedition began, the journey across the devastated United States felt truncated. There are sudden leaps forward in time, which certainly kept the novel moving at a good clip. It just felt a little less substantial than Red Moon: I wanted more (yeah, I’m greedy), and would have welcomed a longer journey with these characters. That being said, I know a lot of people will prefer the shorter, more compact pace.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed The Dead Lands. If you have any interest in dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction, or character-driven fiction, then you have to read this novel. It’s just great storytelling. Bleak, but great.

Very highly recommended.


Also on CR: Interview with Benjamin Percy; Review of Red Moon

Benjamin Percy‘s The Dead Lands is published in the US by Grand Central Publishing (April 14th) and in the UK by Hodder (April 9th).

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