DNF Review: The Dead Lands, Benjamin Percy (2015)

April 15th, 2015 12:30 pm by Kelly Garbato

Didn’t hold my interest.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

DNF at 45%.

As far as they know, the citizens of the Sanctuary – located in what was once downtown St. Louis – are all that’s left of humanity. It’s been 150 years since the H3L1 flu (HELL – get it?) brought about the apocalypse; and several generations since a refugee has approached the Sanctuary’s towering wall, begging for admittance (only to be shot on sight). Surrounded by a desert wasteland crawling with monstrous mutations, squeezed on all sides by an unrelenting drought, what was meant as a place of asylum has devolved into a prison of sorts, marred by hunger, poverty, and inequity.

While some still dare to dream – of connecting with other communities, traveling to places where water falls freely, perhaps one day rebuilding the United States of America – giving voice to one’s hopes has become increasingly dangerous since Thomas Lancer was elected Mayor. Once reserved for murderers and rapists, public executions have become a means of silencing dissent.

But when a strange young woman, with eyes as wide and black as night, arrives at the gate bearing a cryptic letter, a small group of defectors decides to hasten their escape plan. Led by Wilhelmina “Mina” Clark, a sentry/ranger, and Lewis Meriwether (Lewis and Clark – get it?), the curator of the Sanctuary’s museum who seems to possess powers every bit as weird as those of the foreigner Gawea, the group sets off for Gawea’s home in Oregon, battling giant spiders and human-sized bats along the way.

And that’s the first 45% of The Dead Lands.

I hate giving up on a book, but I just couldn’t bear to finish this one. It’s difficult to pinpoint why; the writing isn’t bad, but it isn’t great, either.

There were a lot of little things that rubbed me the wrong way: The forced cleverness (see, e.g., H3L1; Lewis & Clark). The overuse of similes. The repetition of various facts, as if we the readers cannot be trusted to remember the contents of previous chapters. Odd details that are as unbelievable as they are inconsequential.

(How have cans of food been left to spoil in the vault during times of food rationing and starvation? Where did the Mayor get all these colorful birds for his atrium, when the only species that frequent the sanctuary are vultures and crows? Assuming their ancestors were present from the start, shouldn’t years of inbreeding coupled with radiation have warped them beyond recognition? You know, just like the wildlife, but worse? And is there seriously a zoo in the Sanctuary? There’s also the ridiculousness of farming animals for food during a water shortage, but sadly that one has a strong basis in reality.

Oh, and where’s the racial diversity? St. Louis was only 46.4% white in 2013, you know. New para because diversity is totally consequential.)

Worse still, the characters are such roughly drawn caricatures (the world-weary and cynical protector; the kindly doctor; the socially awkward, misanthropic nerd; the corrupt and evil sheriff, propping up the even more corrupt and evil mayor; the mysterious and beautiful stranger) that I had trouble taking them seriously, let alone investing myself in them emotionally. It was when I found myself yawning at a main character’s prospective death (Clark vs. the giant albino bats) that I finally decided to throw in the towel.

Other reviewers have likened this to a store-brand knockoff of Justin Cronin’s The Passage, and I have to agree. A worldwide pandemic (vampires/the flu). An ancient wall (St. Louis/California). The failing society contained within (dying batteries/a drought). The arrival of a strange yet powerful young girl (Amy/Gawea). The siren call of a psychic, seemingly omnipotent leader (Babcock/Aaron Burr). The comparisons are difficult to overlook.

Over on Goodreads, Gabriella noted: “If you read The Passage and found it too long, perhaps Dead Lands is for you.” While The Passage has more than 300 pages on The Dead Lands, it still feels shorter thanks to the masterful writing, detailed world-building, and complex characters. If you haven’t yet, go read it. Don’t even worry about the length, okay.

Even though I didn’t get much out of it, I can’t quite bring myself to give The Dead Lands less than three stars – the writing’s not my favorite, but neither is it atrocious. It just didn’t do it for me and, with a book pile a mile long, I couldn’t justify powering through to the end.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Not much. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland; the sun’s such a constant and uninterrupted presence that melanoma is like the #1 common medical complaint, and “these days, most everyone is some shade of brown.” Thus, it’s a little more difficult to ascertain race; for example, Clark’s “nut-colored” brother York might be a POC, or just especially tanned. The guy who mans the apothecary, Oman, might possibly be the only POC in the Sanctuary (“skin as brown as bark” with a “thinning crown of gray woolly hair”). Funny since only 46.4% of St. Louis is white, according to 2013 statistics.

Mayor Thomas Lancer is bisexual, though this isn’t necessary a positive, seeing as he’s a cartoon villain and possibly a sexual predator. He’s currently having an affair with a young man (maybe 20) named Vincent.

To be fair, I DNF’ed this one at 45%, so there might be more diversity later on.


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