The Dead Lands, by Benjamin Percy

22875435Benjamin Percy’s dark alternate history, The Dead Lands, takes place some generations after the end of the world as we know it. A highly lethal flu wiped out most of the human population. Misguided attempts were made to contain the disease with nuclear weapons by killing the infected before they could leave North America. Radiation and pollution have sped up the process of climate change, but the deadliest thing on the ruined American continent is still Homo sapiens. Percy takes us on a journey through the devastation from what remains of St. Louis to Astoria, Oregon, with a latter day Lewis and Clark. Literally.

Lewis Meriwether is a misanthropic scholar who runs Sanctuary’s museum of the world before the flu. Wilhemina Clark is a sentinel, guarding the Sanctuary’s walls and scavenging anything useful that remains outside the city. Sanctuary is slowly succumbing to drought and disease, but the city runs on the hope that, someday, they will be repatriated by whatever remains of America. One ordinary day, an unusual girl with black eyes rides out of the west to ask Lewis to travel with her to Oregon. Of course, things go agley even before Gawea (the latter day Sacagawea) delivers her message. Thomas Lancer has a death grip on Sanctuary and won’t let anything challenge his rule.

After Clark and her brother, York, free Gawea and convince Lewis to go west, the journey begins. The raggedy corps of discovery hope that they will find some kind of salvation in Oregon, but things are grim in the west. Percy bounces from narrator to narrator. Lewis, Clark, Gawea, and another corpsman, Reed, give us their perspectives as they travel. Lewis’ assistant, Ella, and a thief named Simon keep us posted on events in Sanctuary.

The Dead Lands begins as another post-pandemic wasteland novel, before transforming itself into an inverse of the Lewis and Clark expedition of the early 1800s. The names of the characters kept catching at my memory until I twigged to Gawea. Unlike the original expedition, Lewis and Clark et al. are seeing a land that has been spoiled by humans. Oil fires rage across North Dakota. Radiation is mutating every scrap of genetic code it hits. Slavers roam the west and no one trusts anyone else. At times, Lewis ponders whether humanity is worth saving. The Dead Lands is a dark story. And yet, at the heart of every post-apocalyptic novel, isn’t there the question: what if, this time, we can actually learn from our mistakes and do better?

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 14 April 2015.

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