Benjamin Percy’s The Dead Lands is a kind of post-apocalyptic retelling of the Lewis and Clark’s expedition across America in the early nineteenth century.
Set 150 years into the future, a devastating illness, which caused its sufferers’ lungs to burn and for them to cough up blood until they died, has wiped out all but a few survivors in a walled-off community known as The Sanctuary, once a part of St.Louis, Missouri. The disease – as they usually are in these types of narratives – was accidentally released from a government laboratory, and spread rapidly throughout the country. However, what did not seem typical of the genre was the world’s reaction to the disease. Rather than assisting the United States, the rest of the world launched nuclear attacks in an effort to stop the disease from becoming a worldwide catastrophe. Far from helping, these assaults didn’t do much to halt the spread of the disease, and caused an environmental disaster which the survivors are living with more than a century later.
The Sanctuary, sitting on the banks of the once lush mighty Mississippi River, is now a desert wasteland, the river long dried up thanks to constant hot temperatures and very little rain. For those living in the walled city, the world outside the walls seems a vast, dead space of untold miles, filled with dust, broken, empty buildings and savage, mutated animals. Within the walls, resources are scarce, water is under rationing, pulled up from underground wells. Its people are ravaged by cancer from the harsh sun, as well as suffering all manner of defects as a result of the radiation from the nuclear assault launched on the country upon the outbreak of the disease. They are led by a man who governs using fear, violence and corruption. The only form of entertainment in The Sanctuary is provided by Lewis Meriwether, a well-educated, well-read, and somewhat mysterious outcast who is the curator of The Sanctuary’s museum.
Upon the wall of The Sanctuary works a young woman, the fiery, outspoken and mildly alcoholic Mina Clark. At her post one day, she sees a rider coming out of the Dead Lands – something which nobody expected, believing as they did that they were the last outpost of human civilisation in the country. Gawea, a small teenage girl, with completely black eyes, comes with an impossible message for Lewis – a call to come west to Oregon, a land promised to be lush with trees, water and life, to join a community run by a man known as Aran Burr.
Clark convinces Lewis to answer the call, and they eventually set off with several other survivors, including Clark’s brother York, all following Gawea to what they hope will be a promised land in the West.
The Dead Lands was a fantastic story to read. While there was a lot that one would expect from this type of novel, there was also a lot that was unexpected. What began as a post-apocalyptic Lewis and Clark, turned out to be as much a supernatural fantasy novel as it was post-apocalyptic, with science-fiction and horror also expertly weaved into the narrative.
Benjamin Percy’s descriptions were almost cinematic at times; I could perfectly imagine the wasteland that Lewis and Clark’s band of travellers traversed over many months. The characters also felt completely real to me. I felt their hope as they set off, searching for something, anything better than their lives in The Sanctuary. I felt the hopelessness of the group as they crossed the seemingly desolate landscapes and the destroyed cities. I shared their uncertainty as they followed a girl they knew nothing about. I felt their fear as they encountered creatures which would do well in a horror movie.
I do have a small side-note for the more scientifically inclined – the science of certain aspects of the novel, in particular the accelerated mutation of animals, is not perfect. Some have felt that this detracts from the novel. Being as I am completely unscientifically inclined, this presented no challenge for me. For the sake of what is a very good story, I was perfectly ready to accept the frightening creatures as they were. After all, this is not a story about the animals. It is a story about life, hope and survival against all odds. One of my favourite lines of the novel supports this –
“They live. That is the one true impulse, she supposes, that everything wants to live.”
I would recommend The Dead Lands to any reader who loves a good post-apocalyptic, dystopian, action-filled, fantasy, science-fiction or horror novel. Percy expertly weaves each of these genres together to create a story which was difficult to put down.