It’s the end of the world as we know it. Again. Benjamin (Red Moon) Percy’s new novel takes us to the ruins of St Louis, now renamed the Sanctuary, some 150 years after a biological virus (and a subsequent nuclear bombardment designed to keep the disease on American soil) has wiped out humankind. The survivors – around twenty thousand raggedly-dressed souls - huddle together in their walled enclave eking out a miserable, thankless existence in a parched, baking landscape, terrified of the wastelands beyond in which, they fear, lurk monstrous mutations and terrible abominations. No-one can live out in the bleak, hostile Dead Lands...and then one day a mysterious stranger, a dark-eyed girl named Gawea, appears on the horizon with tales of a green, fertile Promised Land and the tantalising prospect of a life with more to offer than just hiding behind clumsily-fashioned walls and suffering the brutality of the despotic self-appointed Sanctuary mayor Thomas Lancer and his ruthless sentinels.
Percy has crafted a rich, beautifully-detailed nightmare post-apocalyptic world far removed from the cosy catastrophes of many of the recognised classics of the genre. The core of the story sees the Sanctuary’s mysterious magical-powered aged apothecary (and his clanking mechanised pet owl) Lewis Meriwether together with the rebellious semi-alcoholic Wilhelmena Clark join Gawea on a journey across the ravaged countryside, encountering vampire bats and giant spiders and any number of more human obstacles as they begin to realise that life doesn’t, after all, just begun and end in the Sanctuary. Percy’s story (and many of its main characters’ names) takes its lead from the early 19th century Lewis and Clarke Expedition of American legend which saw President Thomas Jefferson dispatch a group of US Army volunteers – led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and his second-in command William Clark – from St Louis to explore largely-uncharted Western America. As real-life adventures go, the Expedition is one Hell of an inspiration and Percy recreates it here as a post-apocalyptic allegory, giving the book a familiar colonial framework about which to hang his story of extraordinary peril and lethal, monstrous inhuman predators.
The Dead Lands fizzes with a real spirit of imaginative, full-blooded adventure. Percy’s writing is beautifully intricate and yet never too heavy-going or impenetrable; he brings his diseased, blasted world to vivid life and there’s an almost poetic quality to his textured prose which alone makes the work a joy to read and savour. This is a magnificently wide and cinematic world – keep an eye on those film rights – packed with incident and characters (not all of whom make it to the last page) and if we can find fault we might have preferred a less hurried, anti-climactic ending. But otherwise fans of dystopian fiction with a mythical, supernatural, monstrous overtone will revel in this clever, confident and sometimes-challenging novel.
THE DEAD LANDS / AUTHOR: BENJAMIN PERCY / PUBLISHER: HODDER/ RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW