When Stephen King endorses a book with, “Good God, what a tale. Don’t miss it,” you have a pretty good indication that you’re in for a ride – and with Benjamin Percy’s The Dead Lands, you are.
It’s been 150 years since the emergence of a pandemic flu, with the ensuing nuclear chaos decimating the world. Now, a few thousand souls exist in an enclosure surrounding what used to be Saint Louis. Named Sanctuary, it’s primitive yet self-sustaining. Outside the walls of Sanctuary are the Dead Lands, a desert-like wasteland full of mutated horrors and living nightmares.
Not that life in Sanctuary is a picnic. Lingering nuclear fallout ensures that cancers and genetic mutations are rampant. It hasn’t rained in months and the wells are drying up. But worst of all is how small the world is for those born there – entire lives are spent inside those walls. No one is allowed outside the gates except for sanctioned rangers, or those sentenced to death via the mutated creatures who rule the Dead Lands.
Then one day a mysterious girl shows up outside the gates of Sanctuary – mutant, with black eyes. Before she can state who she is or where she came from, she is captured and thrown into prison, slated for execution. But to Wilhelmina Clark, this is an opportunity to put a plan in motion – a plan that will allow her and a select few to slip out of Sanctuary, to find out what lies beyond. In return for her freedom, the mutant woman promises to lead Clark and her company to Oregon, a land she says is green and thriving. The expedition knows there will be dangers ahead of them – but they never considered the dangers that lay within them.
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It’s hard to put The Dead Lands into a tidy category. It’s set in a dystopian future, suggesting the speculative branch of science fiction. It incorporates legend, magic and an epic journey, which smacks of fantasy. While there is no direct parallel between events in The Dead Lands and the Lewis and Clark Expedition of the early 1800s,the nods between them give the story an interesting historical dimension. There is mystery, action and thrilling twists and turns, and there are monsters, terror and blood enough to assuage any horror aficionado.
It might seem like a novel with that many stylistic threads would be chaotic, but author Benjamin Percy keeps a rustic grittiness at the core of the story, which grounds it and gives it an unblinking legitimacy; the narrative is never allowed to fritter off into cosmic shenanigans, there is no cavalry waiting just over the hill. Death, when it comes, is brutal and messy, and sometimes agonizingly cruel.
And yet, there is also hope. It is hope that spurs Clark and company on when it seems like all is lost – hope for a better life, for a realization of worth, for fulfillment of a destiny. But with so much betrayal, corruption and harshness within and without, it may be a fool’s hope after all.
To find out, you’ll have to read The Dead Lands for yourself. But that shouldn’t be a tough call. After all, Stephen King was right. Good God, what a tale. Don’t miss it.
~ Sharon Browning