The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy (Grand Central Publishing-April 14th, 2015)-After a virulent flu, followed by a nuclear solution, has ravaged the world, Sanctuary is an outpost in what used to be St. Louis. The mayor, Thomas, rules with an iron fist and hoards water and food as the people of Sanctuary starve. Daily life is primarily survival for the common folks, and Thomas considers himself royalty, a man of decadent tasted and casual cruelty. Meanwhile, his childhood friend Lewis Meriwether spends his days in the museum, among his books and his inventions, but he’s hiding a secret. When a girl named Gawea appears at the gates on horseback, it sets in motion events that will change the lives of everyone. Gawea speaks of a land that’s green and abundant with riches, untouched by the blight that has covered so much of the world. Soon, Lewis, Mina Clark and her brother York, and a doctor and guard make their clandestine escape, hoping Gawea speaks the truth and will lead them to this wonderful place, and hopefully return to Sanctuary with news of a safe, prosperous place to live. But first, they have to travel across the Dead Lands.
Percy does a great job setting up his post-apocalyptic world, as well as the oppressive nature of Sanctuary, and the group encounters danger almost as soon as they leave the gates behind them, in the form of giant spiders. GIANT SPIDERS. They’re terrifying, but they’re just the beginning. Although the group wants desperately to find a place, they’re finding it hard to trust Gawea, who is less than forthcoming about where they’re headed, and what they can expect. Anything is better than Sanctuary, right? When the mayor gets wind of their escape, he sends a man named Jon Colter (aka The Black Fist), and his “wolves” to bring them back, so not only do they have to deal with the many horrors of the Dead Lands (and they are legion), they’ve got Colter on their trail as well. This book has all the good stuff that you want from a post-apocalyptic story and ups the ante. Their journey is peppered with encounters ranging from the odd to the downright terrifying, but, as is usually the case, they find that other people are to be feared most of all. Lewis feels a pull to a man named Aran Burr, who presumably is at their destination, and Lewis feels as if he is destined for something greater. In this, The Dead Lands reminded me quite a bit of The Stand, which it’s actually been compared to, but it’s Percy’s own immersive, terrifying creation, and a fun and scary riff on the Lewis and Clark story. Mina Clark is a fantastic creation, and readers that love strong, unapologetic women will absolutely love Mina. The repellent Thomas makes for some disturbing scenes, and you’ll empathize with his wife, who pines for another, and who Thomas cruelly mistreats. Percy’s imagination is a very fertile place, and he’s equally adept at creating nail biting terror and suspense, but at creating characters that are very easy to root for. If you only read one post-apocalyptic novel this year, make it this one.